How to cure a pain in the (rubber)neck
26 November 2008
The Insider is a fleet manager with years of invaluable experience
Insider wants to know what can be done to keep the traffic flowing when there's been a distracting accident or breakdown on the other side of the road
I've just got back to the office about an hour later than I hoped after sitting in a massive traffic jam on the M40. We were stood motionless for at least five minutes at one point, so obviously it was caused by an accident on what's usually a fairly reliable motorway. Turns out it was, but frustratingly it wasn't on my side of the road.
Rubbernecking congestion is a common and, it has to be said, a fairly tedious source of grouching from my drivers, most of whom claim to look steadfastly forward when passing roadside incidents. I'm not convinced. The more traffic there is and the more we're held up, the more likely it is we'll want to take a gander at the reason for the delay. We're human. We crave news, especially if it affects us.
But it's frustrating to know it's nothing more than human curiosity eating my time, my drivers' time and the whole country's time. I wanted to know what's being done about it.
A quick internet search is enough to show at least it's not being ignored. Academics at America's University of Virginia who studied the phenomenon back in 2004 concluded it was the lead of cause of "distraction-related" crashes, well ahead of mobile phone mis-use. One frustrated US motorist has even set up a website where you can pledge not to rubberneck ("I commit to drive past incidences without looking") and, of course, buy a bumper sticker to confirm your commitment.
I was pleased to see that in the UK the Highways Agency knows better than to hope we'll all stop gawping and is trialling portable screens around the M25 and up the M1 and A1 in Bedfordshire. From what I could find on their site, the screens do seem to cut down the "attractive nuisance" quality of crashes and keep traffic flowing better. But they've got to be erected in the first place and that takes vehicles, manpower and precious time that could be spent clearing up the mess.
Another thing I discovered from my lunchtime research is that people who study these things know that's it not just accidents that'll distract drivers on motorways. It's anything out of the ordinary, right down to a Vectra with a flat tyre. A glance, a dab on the brake and your action is magnified in the subsequent ripple effect, in extreme cases causing a full-blown jam as driver after driver over-reacts to the brake lights ahead.
Knowing this, I'd argue the Highways Agency is partly to blame with their high-vis Land Cruisers blazing away next to every stationary vehicle. A crippled Vectra isn't that exciting just on its own, but stick some flashing lights next to it and it opens up a range of possibilities to the imagination of the bored driver.
So what's to be done? It's catch 22 in that you've got to warn drivers of exceptional events on the motorway, but you don't want that warning to distract them from the essential business of driving. The sooner we're all linked to adaptive cruise control systems the better. Let electronics control speed and distance. That way we can rubberneck without guilt or consequence.