Grammar

Why Do We Call Our Morbid Curiosity ‘Rubbernecking’?

123RF

Rubbernecking can make an already dangerous part of road even more dangerous. Here’s how we wound up with such a strange name for a bad idea.

You’ve probably witnessed rubbernecking. In fact, you may well be a rubbernecker yourself.

There are times when we all fail to resist the temptation. Often, however, we don’t seem to think about how dangerous a practice it can be.

The concept of rubbernecking dates back to 1896, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a fascinating site that tracks the origins of words. It referred to the practice of nosily listening to other people’s conversations. It created a word picture of a person twisting their neck around to better hear a chat.

The word came about originally to describe tourists passing attractions in cars. They twisted their heads in every direction so they wouldn’t miss a single sight.

Nowadays, it primarily refers to a traffic problem. I see it every day in my real job when I’m writing up a report on a traffic accident that causes delays. I see it on Department of Transportation cameras that show a live look at major interstates. Whenever a crash happens, traffic slows down so people can gawk at the carnage.

On the one hand, it’s good that traffic slows down. But on the other hand, it can cause other drivers to get impatient and make bad decisions. That, in turn, can only lead to additional accidents.

You may have experienced this as well. Sometimes, you’ll be driving along and all of a sudden you hit a slowdown. You think there must be a bad accident. A mile or so down the road, traffic just picks up again as mysteriously as it slowed.

Something must have gotten someone’s attention. We just have to wonder what it might have been and how it cleared before we had the chance to see for ourselves.

Rubbernecking poses serious dangers

The insurance company Progressive, in its Life Lanes blog, calls it a form of distracted driving.

It cites multiple examples of people slowing down to stare at a crash causing additional crashes. And the practice, it claims, is becoming more common. Back in April, three vehicles whose drivers weren’t looking ahead wound up in a chain-reaction crash behind a tractor-trailer.

It adds this: “researchers estimate rubbernecking alone causes 10 to 16 percent of all car accidents.”

The internet only makes the danger worse, with too many looking for the next big post on Facebook or Instagram.

But last summer, police in the United Kingdom turned the tables on drivers who tried to record accidents scenes on cell phones while they were driving. They set up a small camera pointing at passing traffic. They recorded drivers who were recording with their phones (and the vehicle license plates, of course) and promised prosecution.

So drivers beware: Curiosity may be responsible for killing a cat. But it poses a real safety threat to you as well!

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.