Rubberneckers suck, amirite?
November 26, 2004 1:58 PM   Subscribe

[trafficsnarlfilter] Seattle, as I'm sure a lot of you know, has a very serious traffic problem. There are two causes that get the majority of the press (geography and highways that don't support the population) but I'm curious if folks in other metro areas have this problem: you're driving along on the intersate/highway/freeway/whatever and suddenly you come to a standstill. After a while, you come to discover that someone has been pulled over by the police or there's a tow truck on the side of the road. At the head of the pack, some wonderful lookie-loo has slowed down to see if they know this person stuck on the side of the road and caused a chain reaction that forces everyone else to slow down as well.

This happened to me yesterday on my way to Thanksgiving dinner. It took me 45 minutes to go 3 miles. I was not a happy camper.

Somehow I'd feel better knowing it's not just drivers in Washington State that are this dumb. Then again...

posted by glyphlet to Travel & Transportation around Seattle, WA (21 answers total)
The phenomenon you speak of happens everywhere, and is known as rubbernecking.
posted by numble at 2:09 PM on November 26, 2004

Only because I considered FPP'ing a while back but didn't since it graced MeFi in December of 2000: Traffic Waves. It's even specific to Seattle...
posted by Fezboy! at 2:19 PM on November 26, 2004

Having now lived in Seattle, California, and New York, I can say that Seattle drivers are by far the worst of the lot.
posted by falconred at 2:58 PM on November 26, 2004

Heh, I was rushing in here to say exactly what numble and Fezboy! just said.

That Traffic Waves site is really quite interesting, and it made me adjust the way I drive when in traffic.

The worst are those people that insist on constantly switching lanes back and forth to try and hit the "fast" lane. All they do is make the problem worse by cutting people off and stopping the free flow of traffic.
posted by mrgavins at 3:03 PM on November 26, 2004

In Chicago, we call it "Gaper's Block" and there is even a wonderful Chicago-themed weblog named after the phenomenon!
posted by idontlikewords at 3:44 PM on November 26, 2004

I've found many times in Boston that there isn't even a pulled over car causing the traffic jam. Many times I've spent over an hour barely going anywhere, and then the traffic jam just ends.
posted by spaghetti at 4:10 PM on November 26, 2004

I will read the links before commenting. I will read the links before commenting. I will read the links before commenting. I will read the links before commenting. I will read the links before commenting.
posted by spaghetti at 4:13 PM on November 26, 2004

Well, speaking for every person in Central Ohio (the equivalent to hell if you like any kind of adventure at all), and I am the elected person to speak for all of central Ohio, .... the drivers here suck ass. Now, you may think I'm employing some exquisite analogy here... no. They are literally sucking someone's ass while driving. That's why they drive so badly.

Throw a little fender bender on the side of the road or a tad of rainwater on the street and, for some reason, we all just slam on our breaks and hum fuck-me-fuck-you for 20 minutes while slapping ourselves in the foreheads and sucking our own cocks.

posted by pissfactory at 5:19 PM on November 26, 2004

It happens too here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the highways leading into it. . All it needs is a minor accident and cars will slow down to have a look. Why? Because they want to record the registration number of the car which is a max of 4 for their permutations when they buy the tri-weekly 4D lottery. And if an unfortunate car had run off the road and the car r/n is not so readily visible, cars will stop alongside the road further down to get down and get the numbers. So every accident is a source for potentially 'lucky' numbers.
posted by kryptos at 6:04 PM on November 26, 2004

Seattle drivers do have a very bad habit of proceeding at full speed until the very last possible second, then slamming on their brakes, which makes this problem much worse than it would normally be.
posted by kindall at 6:55 PM on November 26, 2004

TRAFFIC WAVES page author here. Here's an article that I'm going to add to the website:

The 'infinitely large' traffic jam

I've recently changed my opinion about rubbernecker slowdowns. Many of them (perhaps most) are not caused by rubberneckers! Think about it for a moment. I'm sitting in the huge backup, creeping along, and finally I reach the cop car or accident or whatever. I creep past (taking care not to rubberneck,) then I take off at high speed, and it's clear sailing. What caused the backup? *I DID.* But it's not my fault, and I didn't even know I was to blame.

The cause of the backup is a nonlinear effect. If the "head" of a traffic wave should condense faster than the "tail" evaporates, then rather than propagating as shown in the animation, instead a wave will grow and grow continously. "Infinitely large" traffic jams form! (Well... the longer they exist, the larger they grow, and there may be very few limits to their growth.)

Why would the "tail" of the traffic wave evaporate slowly? Small delays in driver reaction time seem to be the usual cause. And usually the wave itself was set for some other reason; by the original accident for example. As we drive slowly through the wave and arrive at the accident which seems to be causing the huge slowdown, if each of us hits the accelerator after a slightly longer delay than normal, then the tail of the traffic wave will remain pinned in place. But the far end of the wave will keep moving backwards, and the wave will become larger and larger.

Here's an animation I made of a "pinned traffic wave." I suspect that this situation never happens. Instead, only the head or only the tail of the wave will become pinned.
posted by billb at 7:31 PM on November 26, 2004

billb, really great stuff, thanks for the writing. I was reading your site and wondering if there should be state traffic control vehicles based on your observations? They could travel on highways, maybe directed by helicopters to trouble areas, and force the flow of traffic behind them to follow the rules you set out for elimitating waves. It seems like it would be a fairly simple and relitively inexpensive program to impliment that would have a profound impact on traffic flow and stress levels. Have you ever considered writing up a proposal for a program that would utilize your observations to solve traffice problems?
posted by spaghetti at 8:44 PM on November 26, 2004

Minnesota recently passed a law requiring drivers to move over, or at least slow down, when emergency vehicles are stopped at the side of the highway.
posted by gimonca at 10:21 PM on November 26, 2004

A coworker who went to Germany to buy his car once told me that out there the standard procedure of dealing with autobahn accidents is to get the cars off the road and set up a portable white tarp in front of them, so as to prevent the rubbernecking effect. He also told me that sometimes helicopters are used to move the incapacitated cars away, again to remove the distracting elements and get the traffic flowing away. Those Germans, they are an efficient bunch.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 2:09 AM on November 27, 2004

I had the white tarp idea and posted it to half-bakery, but apparently I can't claim priors. They could put advertisements on the tarps for accidental injury lawyers.

This still doesn't solve the problem of sub-contracted road crews that do non-essential work during rush hour. In a situation like that I would support caning.
posted by mecran01 at 7:11 AM on November 27, 2004

Here in Auckland, New Zealand, traffic is the number one concern of ratepayers. I despair if I have to drive anywhere between 7am and 7pm. Traffic numbers have risen phenomenally in the last decade or so, with population growth and the availabilty of cheap cars.

A motorway/freeway system was planned and inaugurated in the 1950s, but with the oil crisis of the early 1970s and the rise of "green" thinking, much of it was shelved. There are plenty of half-built ramps that have been used as carparks for many years.

Meanwhile, the great Auckland mayor of the 1960s, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, proposed a huge public-transport light-rail system, but council squabbling made sure nothing happened. Auckland is a very spread-out city considering it has only just over a million people, hence it's very difficult to run a profitable public service between any two points. Easy to get to the city centre, but hard to get from one suburb to another. The train service is laughable: one main north-south line, and one going a little way east, and a few tardy trains.

In addition it's a hilly place, so building light rail or underground rail would be expensive. The last mayor, ex-MP John Banks, had cronies in Wellington and managed to get funding to complete the motorway network, but for Auckland it almost seems too late for either the motorist or the public transit rider.

And to tie it in properly with the original post: nay - Auckland drivers are the worst in the world. Having driven in Italy, the USA and NZ I feel qualified to comment.
posted by TiredStarling at 9:52 AM on November 27, 2004

In San Diego, the largest city I've lived in so far, there's a new rubbernecking problem that doesn't involve other vehicles or crashes of any kind. Well, not at first - crashes can come afterwards. It's furniture in the road. Either someone was moving and lost the furniture out of the back of their truck or someone wanted to get rid of something rather than pay the dump to take it - either way the furniture ends up in the road. Sounds humorous - but you can't drive over a couch or a mattress, and this causes traffic to slow until some road workers can remove the thing. This happens on a DAILY BASIS here. Though I admit, it's not always furniture - sometimes it's ladders, boxes, household appliances, bales of hay - you name it, it's been on our highways and in some radio traffic report I've listened to.

Oh and we have the usual here as well - no one knows how to use turn signals or how to merge onto the highway, and too many people think they can drive and talk on their cell phones and end up floating all over the road. And the slow people think they drive quickly enough to stay in the fast lane. You know, the usual traffic hazards.
posted by batgrlHG at 2:14 PM on November 27, 2004

billb and spaghetti Thanks for the ideas. What if, instead of a federal or state unit, individual motorists formed a "speed limit patrol" or something. You would put, say, a little yellow circle sticker or something on the back right bumper. If you see another person with the sticker, you pull up next to them, and the two of you drive side-by-side, at the speed limit. I'm sure it would piss people off, but A) it'd help with the traffic jams, and B) it'd make the roads safer.
posted by Alt F4 at 7:14 PM on November 27, 2004

Or you could just ride a bicycle. Sure, your average speed might be a bit lower, but you rarely have to actually stop.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:31 PM on November 28, 2004

This might help, glyphlet. It's a pda-like devide that only does traffic, and it only does so in Seattle (now they do L.A., too). It works over the pager network. Expensive little bugger (if I recall correctly).
posted by zpousman at 6:20 PM on November 28, 2004

AltF4 wrote:
> If you see another person with the sticker, you pull up next to them,
> and the two of you drive side-by-side, at the speed limit.

This would work. However, driving at the speed limit when everyone
else is driving faster will cause huge traffic jams. To "bust" jams you
just need to drive at the average speed of traffic, and to maintain a
large forward space. Someone finally gets it:

Scientific American: top 50 researchers 2004:
Discovered that empty spaces eliminate jams
posted by billb at 11:33 AM on December 15, 2004

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