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Monday, June 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gawking: Here's why we rubberneck on the road

In the state of New Jersey, the police can ticket you for doing what comes naturally. Can you guess what it is?

The clock is ticking and our judges need an answer. Here’s a clue that should narrow things down: It’s an activity that you do sitting up and fully clothed.

The answer: rubbernecking in traffic.

Yes, this just in from our Painfully Obvious News Division: Gawking at accidents and stuff on the side of the road is bad. It causes slowdowns and sometimes accidents. (And to be perfectly clear, you really don't have to wear clothes.) But if you hate the Seattle area's miserable traffic as much as everyone says they do, then sit in the passenger seat for a moment and we'll steer you through the Phenomenon of Gawking.

Yeah, we know you're not the irritating voyeur. It's the other guy. But why does he do it? Experts cite causes ranging from human nature (more on that later) to the dubious and Seattle-centric claim of compassion. Area drivers say they're worried about the poor guy getting a ticket at the Olive Way exit or the 14 drivers in the pile-up triggered by gawkers — who were staring at a two-car collision.

To risk evoking old parochial-school memories with such a phrase, it's bad but it's natural. In fact, rubbernecking is so natural that an expert who considers it "aggressive driving" admits that he can't help himself, either.

"I want to look, too, but I'm careful," says University of Hawaii professor Leon James, author of "Road Rage and Aggressive Driving: Steering Clear of Highway Warfare."

"As I turn my head slowly, I don't slow down. The gawking part is perfectly normal. You want to find out what's going on around you. Looking is good, but slowing down is not. People don't realize that it has such bad consequences."

For instance: Last year, a woman gawking at a rainbow on Interstate 5 caused an accident that involved more than 25 vehicles including a tanker and two semis. And people driving in the opposite direction stopped to climb out of their cars and gawk at her, prompting even CNN to look into the compound-gawking phenomenon.

"We literally had an audience," says Washington State Patrol spokeswoman Monica Hunter. "I can't explain it. The only thing I can say is, yes it happens."

Hey, who doesn't get nostalgic for films from their youth such as "Wheels of Tragedy" and "The Bottle and the Throttle"? (Those driver's ed scare films, by the way, are available in video compilations from Something Weird Video in Seattle.)

The next one's multiple choice: How can you stop rubbernecking?

a) Horse blinders.

b) Aversion therapy with a cattle-prod-wielding passenger.

c) Pretend you're in a spy movie and jam the accelerator so you can't slow down.

d) Have a little discipline.

e) Start a cellphone conversation.

The police might have a problem with anything but answer D. Their observations of driver behavior seem to have left them exasperated, but not without a hint of bemusement. Even after an accident has been cleared, drivers will continue to slow down and blame it on the cars ahead of them, says Randy Robinson of the Seattle Police Department's traffic unit. So he asks them, "Why were you trying to crane your neck so badly, then?"

The State Patrol's Hunter watches drivers fighting with themselves, their hands gripped tightly on the steering wheel as if trying to prevent their heads from swiveling around to scope an accident. "They don't want to look, and even though they know it's been safely cleared to one side of the road, they still have to look," she says.

The number and slowness of gawkers depends on all but one of the following factors:

a) How recent the accident was.

b) The addition of police or ambulance lights.

c) Whether stretchers are visible.

d) If there are any of those little Shriner parade cars.

They're probably all true, although no expert has brought the Shriners into it yet. (And seeing someone pulled over by New Jersey cops for rubbernecking could actually make you slow down and stare.)

But it only takes one neck of rubber, according to amateur traffic physicist Bill Beaty. His Web site (www.amasci.com/amateur/traffic/traffic1.html) is gridlocked with diagrams and animation showing how various things affect the flow of traffic.

An electrical engineer who lives in Ballard, Beaty explains, "In theory, one rubbernecker can create a rubbernecker slowdown. If you slow down a little bit, it means the people behind you have to slow down. ... They lose interest in the attractive nuisance and they take off fast, but the clot is there, and new people entering from behind still have to slow down from behind."

He suggests two clot looseners:

1) Let other drivers in when an accident forces cars to merge lanes.

2) If you see a blockage on the road ahead, slow down in advance to spread it out and help smooth the flow through the constricted area.

Another expert has laid out the mental causes of gawking. There are four, according to Roland Maiuro, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington:

1) As a distraction: Driving is monotonous, so anything out of the ordinary will catch our attention and draw us to it. "It's meant to keep us alive and aware of our surroundings."

2) Follow the leader: "That's known as monkey see, monkey do." If one person looks, the next follows suit.

3) Cause and effect: Drivers rationalize looking by saying that they want to know why they were being delayed.

4) Morbid curiosity: Like horror films, roadside wrecks are arousing, thrilling and riveting. "The accident provides a close encounter without yourself being directly involved being put at risk."

Summing it up eloquently as he watched the aftermath of a plane crash in Elliott Bay in March, onlooker Chris McGee, 19, said, "You gotta look. It's interesting."

His friend Jeff Wilson chimed in: "You look because you want to see if they are OK."

Sure. And concern is what glues people to hockey brawls, too. But there may be something to it. Hunter gets e-mails from people who say they were praying for accident victims. She was always surprised at how often people would pull over to help her corral a dog running loose on the highway or change a tire. Hunter, who came from California, thinks people here are just different. And so do they.

Washington drivers ranked themselves significantly above drivers in other states in "feeling compassion," in a survey by "Road Rage" author James. The survey was unofficial and comprised of about 1,000 Internet respondents. In it, Washingtonians also rated themselves some of the least aggressive drivers in the country, lowballing themselves in such actions as deliberately cutting off other drivers and failing to signal at lane-changes.

They must not have been bus drivers.

If nothing else helps, try conjuring a mental image of the officious cop from "South Park": Keep moving! There's nothing to see here! It's a lie, but it could get you home faster.

Mark Rahner doesn't like to yield. He can be reached at 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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