Throughout the world each year, hundreds of first responders die or suffer serious injuries due to secondary accidents caused by distracted, impaired, or speeding drivers flying around an existing accident. Current accident response protocols are not serving to protect those who protect and serve, prompting innovations in first responder and accident scene safety products and procedures.
In the United States, the National Traffic Incident Management Coalition (NTIMC), the National Unified Goal for Traffic Incident Management, and the Federal Highway Administration are aware of the challenges posed by secondary accidents. The NTIMC shares, “Secondary incidents pose a tremendous danger to response personnel, according to the NTIMC the likelihood of a secondary crash increases by 2.8% for every minute the initial incident continues to be a hazard. Causes include changes in traffic conditions, including the lengthening line of other vehicles, substantial drop in speed, and rubbernecking. Secondary crashes due to congestion resulting from a previous crash are estimated to represent 20 percent of all crashes.”
Protecting our first responders will require a unified, standardized response plan that will effectively reduce the number of secondary incidents. To formulate such a plan, it is important to understand there are psychological and physical factors at play when a driver is distracted.
On television, in newspapers, and on social media every day, distracted drivers are described as “gawking” or “rubbernecking” at accident scenes. Justin Caba of Medical Daily writes, “We all rubberneck. It’s actually human nature.” Caba draws from a theory put forward by Michael Stevens, who argues that “we like disturbing things because we like to SCREAM. They give us Strength, Catharsis, Reality, Exploration, Acceptance, and Meaning.’”
We can’t resist the urge to gawk, and this distracted driving is slowing us down. According to research from David H. Roper, “A 26 percent capacity reduction will occur even though an incident, such as a stalled vehicle or a law enforcement stop, is on the shoulder and is not blocking the lanes physically. This ‘gawking effect,’ as motorists slow to observe an incident, can cause a severe loss in capacity and create serious congestion even for those traveling on the side of the freeway opposite from the incident.”
If gawking is a factor of human nature, what procedures can be put in place to help keep traffic flowing and reduce the risks of injuries or death to our first responders?
One option is putting up a portable traffic incident screen to block the view of the accident and help motorists keep their eyes on the road rather than the accident. Countries like the United Kingdom are already using screens to block the views of an accident from motorists. “Despite the limited use of the screens to date, more than a quarter of motorists (27 percent) think the police should always put up screens to block an accident from view.” A spokesperson from the company said: “The screens play a crucial role in reducing congestion and associated collisions, provide extra sensitivity and discretion for people involved in incidents and can also be used to cordon off parts of the incident scene so recovery and repair work can happen in parallel.”
Why do portable traffic incident screens work? Psychological Science sheds light on the effectiveness of scene barriers by considering the connection between the human eye, the accident scene, and the power of distraction. “Eye-tracking equipment provided the amount of time and frequency participants’ eyes focused on different parts of the scene and the road. When the view of the accident was fully blocked by a barrier, drivers only spent an average of about 4 seconds eyeing the side of the road. In contrast, they spent an average of around 12 seconds ‘rubbernecking’ in the no-barrier and partial-barrier conditions.”
This research is promising when we consider how effectively obscuring an accident scene will keep traffic flowing and reduce secondary accidents.
In the United States, 25 out of 50 states have guidelines in place with similar priorities and goals. They are working toward increasing safety for incident responders by limiting time at each scene, reducing the risk of secondary crashes, reducing the duration and impact of traffic incidents without compromising effective law enforcement investigations, and minimizing delay costs. Portable traffic incident screens that deploy and break down quickly would effectively block the view of gawkers, helping minimize the distraction, the danger, and the delay.
The truth is people will always have the urge to “gawk” at any accident on the highways, no matter how big or small it is. The only real solution to the problem is to retrain our eyes to stay on the road by removing the temptation to gawk. Portable traffic incident screens offer a promising solution and should be integral to current accident response protocols if we are going to keep traffic moving and protect those who serve.
For more information, go to GawkStopper.com
Top image: Screens preserving victim dignity while protecting first responders work space.