Driving: Gawking at roadside incidents may be fun, but it costs us. State police chalk up two-thirds of all highway delays to rubbernecking.


September 07, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

There you are, the whole family in tow, zipping around the beltway in the minivan, coming back from the long Labor Day weekend. You're making good time as the needle on the speedometer edges past the 65-mph mark.

Then it happens. A river of red brake lights glows up front and you're forced to rein in the horses under that minivan's hood to a slow trot. You can almost see the pity on the faces of drivers heading the opposite way.

You creep along for miles, wondering what in the world would cause such a backup. A six-car pile-up? A gaping crater in the highway? Armageddon?

The truth is even more ghastly: It's just a state trooper giving someone a ticket.

On the other side of the median, no less.

Rubberneckers. Gawkers. Crane-necking. 'Tis the season, as everyone piles onto the nation's highways for one of the biggest travel weekends of the year. Baltimore's already clogged highways, especially Interstate 95, were expected to see 20 percent to 30 percent more cars this weekend.

Police and traffic engineers across the country say rubbernecking causes more jams, accidents and road rage incidents than most people realize. Maryland state police chalk up two-thirds of all delays on highways to rubbernecking.

Be it a minor fender bender or an overturned truck engulfed in flames, life's little roadside dramas compel even the most stoic of drivers to check it out. We despise rubberneckers, but we can't help but be one of them.

We're too nosy.

Someone changing a tire on the side of the road inexplicably becomes a must-see event. So we slow down, to, say, 55 from a steady 65-mph clip for just a second. Then we speed up again, having had our cinematic fill.

What we don't know is that everyone in the next 30 cars or so back is going to pay dearly for our curiosity.

Traffic engineers call it a shock wave. People are forced to slow to a lower speed than the car in front to avoid ramming it. Eventually, if the road is crowded enough -- generally, measured as 2,000 cars passing the same point in an hour -- cars are forced to stop.

The whole thing is unavoidable once the first guy slows down. It is made even worse when cars start jockeying into other lanes, causing those lanes to slow, too.

"Whenever it happens, I swear, I'd like to break out an Uzi and start shooting," says Micah Rowell, a computer salesman from Philadelphia who logs nearly 100,000 miles up and down I-95 each year, most of it through the Baltimore- Washington area.

Few things are as frustrating as sitting in traffic for no good reason. Almost as exasperating is when the highway lanes clear up all of a sudden, leaving everyone clueless as to what caused the jam up in the first place.

"This is what I don't get," says Susan Lee Hightower, as she munches potato chips at the I-95 rest stop near Laurel, before heading home to Richmond. "You creep along for 20 minutes, come around a curve and all of a sudden everything is clear. I'm thinking, 'Why have I been delayed if there is nothing holding us up?' "

Unfortunately, while it takes only a second or two to bring traffic to a standstill, it takes far longer to get things back up to speed. It works something like cars sitting at a stoplight. The light may turn green, but if you are the 10th car in line, it will take a while before you get moving again.

Rubbernecking has become so bad in the D.C. suburbs, which has the second most congested roadways in the nation, that Gov. Parris N. Glendening last year ordered police to stop issuing tickets to HOV scofflaws on I-270.

The notoriously congested spur off the capital beltway would back up for miles whenever a trooper pulled a hapless violator over for not having enough people in the car to use the lanes set aside for high-occupancy vehicles.

Since people are too busy rubbernecking, it follows that that they aren't watching where they are going. That means a crash is inevitable. Now there will be two things to look at on the roadside.

"Rubbernecking is a phenomenon that troopers find very hard to explain," says Greg Shipley, a State Police captain. "I was at the scene of an overturned tractor trailer on the overpass of Interstate 795. People below on Interstate 695 were looking the 100 feet up, never once looking in front of them. Cars were slowing down and almost ceasing to move, and other vehicles were running up behind them. Brakes squealing, horns blowing, cars sliding into another lane. But they had to look, and they are willing to risk their lives and everyone else's to get a look at something."

Just last week, when a tractor-trailer slammed into a jersey wall on northbound I-95 in Harford County, the southbound lanes were backed up for two miles. There was no obstruction, people just felt the need to gawk.

Rubbernecking takes time, and time is money. Trucking companies say they lose close to $10 million each year because of tractor-trailers idling on the highways and missing delivery deadlines.

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