FRESNO, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) – Many drivers will, at some point in their life behind the wheel, be caught in a traffic jam caused by a crash further ahead. More often than not, officials say the situation is made worse by other drivers slowing down to take a look at the wreck as they pass by.
Officials from the California Highway Patrol say drivers’ attention should be on the road in front of them.
“It’s causing problems for the rest of the traffic trying to get to their destination,” said CHP Officer Mike Salas.
To answer why we are so interested, Associate Professor of Psychology at Fresno State Dr. Spee Kosloff says there are a number of possible reasons to explain peoples’ fascination with other people’s car crashes.
“Driving is a pretty boring activity, it’s a boring and repetitive act,” said Dr. Kosloff. “Something like an accident is potentially a welcome distraction.”
Dr. Kosloff says peoples’ brains are wired to focus on meaningful events. Compounded on top of that is what’s called social contagion, where (in this case) a single act spreads throughout a group.
“Folks see a bunch of other people doing stuff, we’ll follow the leader and march along with them,” explained Dr. Kosloff.
However, there is also what’s called a morbid curiosity, prompting us to slow down our cars to look out the window at a crash. That morbid curiosity can be broken down into individual causes — of which Dr. Kosloff detailed three of them.
The first is an interest in dangerous or disgusting things — and figuring out a way to learn from them.
“If we can view them, especially at a safe distance, then maybe we can get more familiar with them,” explained Dr. Kosloff. “That, in turn, improves our ability to recognize or avoid similar aversive situations in the future,”
The second reason is our interest in finding a possible reward or comfort from the situation. For example, seeing a line of vehicles and flashing lights lets a person know something has happened — but slowing down can help someone figure out that it is not as bad as they think it is.
The third is about enhancing a person’s own ego. Slowing down could help someone find out more about what happened and possibly provide a story to tell when they arrive at their destination. Someone could also slow down to confirm that the crash involved someone they do not know and erase that concern in their mind. Or a person could slow down to figure out something about the driver and create a story in their mind that shields them from ever being in that situation.
“Let’s just say I look and I see it was an elderly person that was involved,” said Dr. Kosloff. “Well, I’m not like them — maybe they were too old to be driving.”
However, Dr. Kosloff says these theories do not cover every situation and that there are innumerable possible reasons why drivers slow down to check out the scene of a crash.
CHP Officer Mike Salas says that if someone needs to find out what happened in a highway crash, it is easier to check the CHP’s social media (or a reputable news website) when their journey is over.
“If it’s something newsworthy, then it’s going to be out there.”