If driver behaviour is anything to go by, car crashes are fascinating. Most motorists have probably come across the expression ‘rubbernecking’ at some stage or another. But why do so many drivers insist on taking photos of crash scenes? It’s such a quandary that academics and psychologists are studying the phenomenon…
A Lack Of ‘Humanity’
That people take photos of car crashes, including graphic ones, and then upload them for viewing on to the Internet is curious for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s illegal; people can and do go to prison because of it. Last November a police officer lost his job after filming an accident between a lorry and a motorbike. He shared the footage with his colleagues who, in turn, reported him to their superiors. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Back in August a woman lost her life in a car accident in Derbyshire. Graphic photos were taken of the scene and distributed online. The victim’s relatives criticised those responsible for having a lack of ‘humanity.’
Another factor is the obvious ethical dimension; it’s obvious that taking photos of injured or deceased persons is disrespectful and thoughtless. It doesn’t take much empathy to imagine how we, ourselves, would feel if a photo of a loved one circulated on social media. This is why mainstream news outlets rarely show raw footage or photography that’s graphic.
Why People Do It
An associate professor in experimental psychology at University College London, Dr Lasana Harris, has explored the phenomenon of photographing car accidents. He believes that the process is quite literally a ‘mindless’ act. He said, “We live in a culture where [photography on phones] is what people do; it’s normative behaviour. Often we’re just running on autopilot and we’re not thinking – and that’s why it doesn’t seem intrusive to those doing it.” Harris also believes that when taking photos, the photographers believe that they are sharing information and insights, therefore serving a public function.
However, if someone’s busy taking a photo of a calamity, they’re not in a position to offer help or support. Harris believes that this is a bystander phenomenon in which people don’t take action lest they fall out of sync with the crowd. According to this theory, the larger the crowd the less-likely any action will be taken. This is why the photographers resort to to the ‘public information’ defence. Harris explained, “You can come up with explanations – ‘I was documenting’ – to preserve the belief you’re a good person. You find ways to save your moral selves. But it’s an afterthought, to later justify their behaviour. Again, in the moment, I don’t think they are thinking.”
It’s only natural to have some curiosity when passing a car accident; whatever the severity. Whether it’s because we want to know what’s held us up in traffic or instinct, the temptation is there. That said, rubbernecking is naturally bad driving. If your eyes are on a crash, they’re not on what’s in front of you. In addition, staring is simply rude and disrespectful. Apply some empathy. Imagine what’d it’d be like to be in a crash yourself, only to be gawped at by hundreds, if not thousands, of passing drivers and their passengers. Stay safe and respect your fellow motorists, no matter how serious a crash is.