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.
Rubbernecking has been described as a human trait that is associated with morbid curiosity. 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 rubbernecking was a term coined in America in the 1890s to refer to tourists. H.L. Mencken said the word rubberneck is "almost a complete treatise on American psychology" and "one of the best words ever coined".
By 1909 rubbernecking was used to describe the wagons, automobiles and buses used in tours around American cities, and through their Chinatowns. The tours included a megaphone-wielding individual offering commentary on the urban landscape. Chinese Rubbernecks was the title of a 1903 film.
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. Hawkers, touts and steerers were used to market the rubbernecking tours, also known as "gape wagons" or "yap wagons."
Rubbernecking and the automobile
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. A study on the English M6 motorway found that 29% of accidents and breakdowns caused slowdowns in the uninvolved opposite lanes. According to a 2003 study in the U.S., rubbernecking was the cause of 16% of distraction-related traffic accidents. Rubbernecking appears in the book 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them, which advises that the safest course when there are flashing lights and an accident is to keep moving, as "there is nothing to see here". Rubbernecking's impact on traffic has been the subject of studies and is said to be factored into highway design.
Incident screens have been designed that can be erected around vehicle accidents. The plastic partitions are designed to shield accidents from passing motorists in order to deter rubbernecking and improve the flow of traffic. Several types of screens have been trialed in the United Kingdom.
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