Monday, November 7, 2011

Stick your neck out to help, not to gawk

A couple of weeks back, while on my way to work I was caught twice in a traffic snarl that should not have happened.

A trip that should have lasted no more than 30 minutes took almost twice as long, thanks to two incidents that happened a week apart.

The first traffic snarl was precipitated by an accident on a two-lane stretch involving two women drivers. Save for a small dent on the bumper of the car that was hit from behind, and a crumpled bonnet on the culprit's vehicle, the damage to their pride must have been greater.

Otherwise, why would both women leave their cars on a busy road - and deprive other motorists of their way - to engage in a shouting match? The spectacle attracted the attention of passing motorists who slowed down to rubberneck.

The second traffic crawl I was caught in was again due to rubbernecking - a term coined in the 1980s to describe the action of gawking at road accidents.

A car that had ploughed into a construction site hoarding and got stuck there sparked the jam. Although the actual incident happened hours earlier, the Monday morning incident continued to provide motorists with some amusement.

Unfortunately for one driver who was rubbernecking, the curiosity to catch a glimpse of the ill-fated car cost him. His car was hit by another car, which in turn, was hit by another, causing a pile-up, I was told. Although by the time I passed the spot, the cars had been towed to the side of the road to allow others to pass, smooth traffic flow had already been disrupted. Down several kilometres, the crawl had been reduced to a standstill.

Rubbernecking is quite often the cause of traffic slowdowns, usually more often than road closures, if you pay attention.

Why sane people stick their necks out to look at other people's misfortunes when helping is last on their minds has puzzled me for quite a while. However small an accident or how insignificant an event on the road is, you can bet your last drop of petrol in the tank that there will be rubbernecking.

One chap told me how he tested this theory one day. He parked his car on the emergency lane of a highway, got out and looked curiously skywards. Within minutes cars were slowing down and their drivers were sticking their necks out of their windows to looked skywards.

Several drivers even stopped their cars next to his car, got down and joined him. Only when he told them that he was just enjoying the sight of the blue skies did they leave, with faces red upon realising their folly.

Curiosity on the road can be a good thing if it is followed by willingness to help should the situation require it. Otherwise, rubbernecking when passing an accident scene will not benefit anyone.

While satisfying their curiosity, people who are tempted to rubberneck are not only holding up the traffic, they are preventing emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire engines downstream from getting to their destinations.

At its worst, rubberneckers are putting their lives and others' into danger as they are on a collision course with other less alert motorists.

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