What is Rubbernecking? (with pictures)

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
"Rubbernecking" commonly refers to the practice of drivers slowing down to witness the aftermath of an accident.
"Rubbernecking" commonly refers to the practice of drivers slowing down to witness the aftermath of an accident.

Before the initial scene of a car accident is cleared away, a second potentially dangerous phenomenon known as rubbernecking often occurs. Passing motorists slow down considerably to observe the aftermath of the accident, or curious bystanders form a crowd around the site. Rubbernecking can be a very dangerous practice, especially for other drivers who must negotiate both the original accident scene and the traffic snarl created by curious gawkers. Emergency officials at an accident often try to discourage rubbernecking by forcefully directing drivers to keep moving.

Men swiveling their heads to get a look at girls in a bar might be said to be "rubbernecking."
Men swiveling their heads to get a look at girls in a bar might be said to be "rubbernecking."

It is part of human nature to become curious at the sight of something extreme or unusual, which makes some aspects of rubbernecking very understandable. Tourists viewing the sites of a large city for the first time often spend most of their time rubbernecking, because they are completely overwhelmed by the new and unusual sights around them. Some sources even say the term "rubbernecking" may have started around the early 20th century, as tourists riding in special sightseeing carriages around New York city craned their heads to take in the view of 44th Avenue. Local New Yorkers once called that area of Manhattan "Rubberneck Road."

Car crashes often draw rubberneckers.
Car crashes often draw rubberneckers.

Rubbernecking is also a common practice at bars popular with singles. The song "Rubberneckin'," released posthumously by Elvis Presley, details the practice of young men straining their necks and swiveling their heads to observe all of the beautiful women in a club. While this form of rubbernecking may not be popular with a man's female companion, it is still part of human nature to look at anything out of the ordinary, including the sights and sounds of a crowded nightclub.

Rubbernecking can cause secondary accidents when one person stops, or when one driver veers across the center line.
Rubbernecking can cause secondary accidents when one person stops, or when one driver veers across the center line.

There have been some studies conducted which seem to connect rubbernecking with a subsequent loss of attention. This is why extended rubbernecking while driving past an accident scene could be hazardous to one's health. One study showed that participants failed to register a target image which immediately followed a graphically violent or sexual image. In a real world application, a rubbernecking driver who sees a violent car crash may not recover in time to recognize a changing traffic light or the brake lights of a car. Rubbernecking is a natural reaction for many people, but drivers should learn to keep their attention on the road ahead and avoid becoming a new hazard for other drivers.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

anon340888

@anon65742: Slowing down with your head turned away from the road is not safer than maintaining speed.

anon65742

The write of this article describes slowing down near the scene of an automobile accident as potentially dangerous.

Surely it is *more* dangerous to maintain your speed – there maybe be people on the road, leaking oil (or debris), someone seriously injured who needs help. I think it is safe driving to slow down in these situations. If people are ogling at something to the point where their driving becomes unsafe, that's their bad driving skills (and morbid fascination) as opposed to actual cautious driving.

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    • "Rubbernecking" commonly refers to the practice of drivers slowing down to witness the aftermath of an accident.
      "Rubbernecking" commonly refers to the practice of drivers slowing down to witness the aftermath of an accident.
    • Men swiveling their heads to get a look at girls in a bar might be said to be "rubbernecking."
      Men swiveling their heads to get a look at girls in a bar might be said to be "rubbernecking."
    • Car crashes often draw rubberneckers.
      Car crashes often draw rubberneckers.
    • Rubbernecking can cause secondary accidents when one person stops, or when one driver veers across the center line.
      Rubbernecking can cause secondary accidents when one person stops, or when one driver veers across the center line.