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"Rubbernecker" redirects here. For the television series, see Rubbernecker (TV series).
"Rubberneck" redirects here. For the Toadies album, see Rubberneck (album).
An early tourist area called "Rubberneck Row" in Long Beach, Washington, circa 1909
A crowd of onlookers observes routine police activity at a minor vehicle collision
Modern day rubbernecking in rural Vietnam

Rubbernecking is the act of gawking or staring at something of interest. A common example of rubbernecking is drivers trying to view the aftermath of a traffic accident. The term rubbernecking refers to the physical act of craning one's neck, performed in order to get a better view.[1]

Rubbernecking has been described as a human trait that is associated with morbid curiosity.[2] It can be the cause of traffic jams (sometimes referred to as "Gapers' blocks"), as drivers slow down to see what happened in a crash. It is also a cause of further accidents in the vicinity of the original accident, as drivers become distracted and unexpectedly change their rate of travel, while other drivers are also distracted, and so forth. The word rubbernecking has also come to be used more generally to describe a voyeuristic interest in someone else's business or affairs. Fires in buildings tend to attract rubberneckers, as there is little danger for them in observing the spectacle from a distance.

The term is generally considered to be slang or unconventional English.[3]


The term rubbernecking was a term coined in America in the 1890s to refer to tourists.[4] H.L. Mencken said the word rubberneck is "almost a complete treatise on American psychology" and "one of the best words ever coined".[4]

By 1909 rubbernecking was used to describe the wagons, automobiles and buses used in tours around American cities,[4] and through their Chinatowns.[5] The tours included a megaphone-wielding individual offering commentary on the urban landscape.[5] Chinese Rubbernecks was the title of a 1903 film.[5]

One writer described the "out-of-towners" stretching their necks to see New York while having misinformation shouted at them, and artist John Sloan depicted them as geese in a 1917 etching called Seeing New York.[4] Hawkers, touts and steerers were used to market the rubbernecking tours, also known as "gape wagons" or "yap wagons."[4]

When phone lines were shared as "party lines" the term rubbernecking applied to someone who listened in on the conversation of others.[6]

Rubbernecking and the automobile[edit]

The term is often used to refer to the activity of motorists slowing down in order to see something on the other side of a road or highway, often the scene of a traffic accident. According to a 2003 study, rubbernecking was the cause of 16 percent of distraction-related traffic accidents.[7] It features in the book 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them and is said to be factored into highway design.[7] The book advises that the safest course when there are flashing lights and an accident is to keep moving, "there is nothing to see here". Rubbernecking's impact on traffic has been the subject of studies.[8] In the United Kingdom, the Department for Transport has made use of "incident screens", plastic partitions to shield accidents from passing motorists in order to deter rubbernecking and improve the flow of traffic around accidents.[9]


In the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, incident screens have been designed that can be erected around vehicle accidents to discourage rubbernecking.[10][11]


  1. ^ Rosalind Fergusson, Eric Partridge, Paul Beale Shorter slang dictionary Routledge, 1994 ISBN 978-0-415-08866-4, page 178
  2. ^ Daniel P. Franklin [Politics and film: the political culture of film in the United States] Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006 University of Michigan ISBN 978-0-7425-3808-5, page 96
  3. ^ Victor, T. and Dalzell, V. (2007), The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Routledge, p.550. ISBN 978-1134615346
  4. ^ a b c d e Irving Lewis Allen The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech Oxford University Press US, 1995 ISBN 978-0-19-509265-3
  5. ^ a b c Peter X. Feng [Screening Asian Americans] Rutgers University Press, 2002 ISBN 9780813530253
  6. ^ Frederic Gomes Cassidy, Joan Houston Hall Dictionary of American regional English Harvard University Press, 2002 ISBN 978-0-674-00884-7, page 657
  7. ^ a b Laura Lee 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them July 1, 2004 Murdoch Books ISBN 978-1-74045-422-3, page 161
  8. ^ Jonathan P Masinick An Analysis on the Impact of Rubbernecking on Urban Freeway 2004 University of Virginia
  9. ^ "Motorway screens bid to stop rubbernecking by motorists". BBC News. 27 December 2012. Retrieved 21 August 2014. 
  10. ^ "Rubbernecking prevention using incident screens"
  11. ^ "Incident Screens - Functional Specification". The National Archives. Retrieved 2013-08-26. 

External links[edit]