Emergency crews had indeed moved the accident off to the side of the road, but traffic was still slow moving past it. Not because there were pieces of car or driver in the road, but because everyone had to go by slowly enough to get a good look at what happened. It was another moment in the great American pastime of rubbernecking.
Since the traffic delay wasn’t so great as to make me miss the first pitch, I gladly participated in the spectacle. The crash was quite a glorious one, I must say. There was a pickup truck with its entire front end smashed and a company van of some kind that was also pretty mangled. I saw no ambulances, but if there were any injuries I am sure the victims were taken away long before I passed by.
As I gave one last twist of my neck to see if I missed any gory details before accelerating toward home, I got to thinking about what I had just done. At least two other people just had a terrifying accident that will no doubt cause complications for months to come or longer, as they deal with possible injuries and the even more painful ordeal of making insurance claims. And what did I do? I wanted to watch.
How is that different, though, from what I do each and every day? You might call me a professional surrogate rubbernecker. Think about it. Reporters write about and take pictures of accidents, disasters, scandals and other lurid happenings all the time in the name of “news.” The more blood or death or sex or suffering or any combination thereof I put on the front page, the more people will stop to look at my newspaper. I am proud to say that we don’t do much of that in the Tribune, though we’re not totally guilt-free. I can think of at least a couple of times we’ve gotten some good shots of an accident and played them big in print. I certainly couldn’t be in TV news, though, where that kind of news is really the only news.
Then I got to thinking about what kinds of programming dominate television these days: reality or game shows like “American Idol” and “Wife Swap” and “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader.” Sure, you get a few happy moments here and there but why do we really watch? To watch singers berated by a bitter man with a bad British accent, to watch bad-tempered teens scream, “You’re not my mom!” at total strangers and to see how completely stupid we are as a population. We want to see the high and the lows — no, really just the lows. Particularly other people’s lows. The lower somebody else’s lows go, the better. The only difference between rubbernecking on the road and watching it on television is that when it’s on the tube somebody makes money off my natural human inclination to watch others suffer and I can get drunk while it happens.
If it’s a natural instinct to look at painful things, whether a road accident or another show featuring Paris Hilton, is there anything wrong with doing it? Maybe it’s a survival tactic. In a subsconscious way we’re studying what happened so we don’t make the same mistake. In the case of reality TV, I’d say it’s not a survival tactic but a maintenance-of-dignity tactic. On the rare occasion I do watch reality TV I’m reminded that no matter how much money they offer me I will never go on one of those shows. Either way, as long as we learn from our rubbernecking, I guess it’s OK — as long as it doesn’t make me late to watch the game.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just heard there’s an accident nearby and I’m going to check it out. Come with me, it will be educational.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.