Globe Editorial

Rubbernecking: Put a sheet on it

Traffic on Interstate 495 backed up due to an accident. Traffic on Interstate 495 backed up due to an accident. (The Boston Globe)
August 22, 2011

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Rubbernecking has long been a scourge of morning commuters and weekend warriors. When thousands of drivers slow down, however briefly, to peak at a roadside accident, it can create traffic jams for miles. But according to a study in the United Kingdom, highway congestion needn’t be a way of life. It turns out that the bulk of highway congestion can be prevented if officials place screens at crash sites to prevent onlookers from gawking.

When officials put up green mesh screens after automobile accidents along British highways, they expected to observe a slight correlation between rubbernecking and traffic jams. But the correlation wasn’t slight. Congestion cleared up almost immediately. Even more surprising was the fact that the screens helped traffic flow in both directions, even when a median stood between the two lanes.

Incoming Massachusetts transportation secretary Richard Davey could launch a similar pilot program. He should wait a few months to give the British a chance to work out some kinks. The screens there, for example, still have a tendency to tip over on windy days, and setting them up on highways can be dangerous. But MassDOT should embrace the idea as soon as viable solutions emerge. Rubbernecking is one tradition Massachusetts would be better off without.