The Cure for Rubbernecking


221? 221, go ahead. Proceed Code 3 to 2 miles east of city limits, 10/50 major, possible fatalities. The Sheriff’s Department was en-route, but was asking my dispatcher for an assist until they could get to the wreck in their jurisdiction.

It was 3:45pm on a Sunday afternoon in October…I flipped on the overheads and siren and off I went to see what I could do to help. Dispatchers will tell you, up front, if the traffic accident is a minor or a major, 10-50. Minor is just what you would imagine…and major meant that some type of injury to a person was involved. If it was bad enough, the dispatcher would say possible fatality or signal 18. In Texas, we officers had our own slang for signal 18…we called them DRTs, “dead right thar.”

If you heard signal 18, you tended to pick up your speed a bit. Sometimes you just needed to get to the gruesome scene to cover up a body in the roadway. Treating the dead with respect is on your mind, of course. But we didn’t want another wreck to occur, caused by a rubbernecker ogling the body and drilling the car in front of him….more paperwork you see.

Rubbernecking is that trait in all humans that makes you slow down when you drive past a wreck on the highway…perfectly normal. It is responsible for slowing traffic in the opposite direction when there is absolutely no obstruction in the roadway. Next time you are cursing the traffic up ahead…drive past the wreck without looking at the carnage…go ahead and try that. You are already anticipating the accident I am writing about in this very blog….you too are a rubbernecker my friend.

I parked the unit at a slant, across both eastbound lanes, about 30 yards west of the accident to warn oncoming traffic. I walked up to the first vehicle, it was a Ford station wagon and it had T-boned a Toyota Corolla.

The wagon had been traveling at approximately 65 mph on impact. Now basic physics will tell you that if you don’t have a seatbelt on, meaning no oppositional force, a body will remain in motion. The car stopped, the body flew through the window at 65 mph, hitting a sign post at the crossover and crashing down to the pavement. I call it a body because it ceased to be a person at the point it hit the yield sign head first. I could tell the body was male and that is about all as I placed the blanket over him. It is hard to describe damage to the human body at this level of trauma…..but if you could see it, your rubbernecking days might be over. That guy was DRT.

I proceeded to the second car…there were a few motorists around it that had stopped to help. Smoke was coming out of the engine and my first concern was fire. The driver side door was up against a post, an elderly man behind the wheel. A woman was in the right front passenger side, about 30 years of age. The ambulance and fire department was on the way…extricating the two people was going to be tough.

I remember a woman vomiting on the grass median…the apparent effect of having looked into the cab of the Toyota. The civilians deferred to me and I leaned in for my own look. The elderly driver was talking to me and asking if I could help his daughter…please!! I could not believe my eyes. I was having a conversation with a man whose head was nearly split in two. I had full view of his brain! The crack went right down the middle of his head and ended at the bridge of his nose. I told him I would help his daughter if he put his head back against the seat and waited on the paramedics.

I could hear the fire department sirens in the distance as I turned my attention to the woman. The first thing I noticed was she was wearing a Wendy’s fast food restaurant uniform. She had massive torso and head injuries. Blood was coming out of her nose, mouth, and ears…plus a few new orifices. I recognized what in my past experiences was the “death rattle.” The woman was drowning in her own blood. The best thing I could do was hold her head in a position that best opened her airway….but it was futile.

Never in my life had I imagined that I would be holding a woman while she bled to death, while comforting her father as I looked at the man’s brain! This creates memories and mental images that never leave you. Can you even imagine what that poor old man was going through?

The fire department had the Careflight helicopter land right down in the middle of the highway. It was too late. The woman who probably worked her ass off at Wendy’s flipping burgers every day…just trying to make an honest living, had died on her way home.

I had used latex gloves, but blood covered pretty much the rest of my uniform. The Sheriff’s Department had made the scene and were taking over, so I started walking back to my patrol unit. I could hear a young man screaming up ahead, hanging half way out of his Ford Mustang. “What the hell are you people doing!? I need to get through here right now!! How many cops does it take to clear up an accident for Christ sake?!!”

The Deputy directing traffic on to the access road had heard just about enough!! He walked over to the Mustang and pulled the guy out of the car. He half walked, half drug him over to the DRT, still lying next to the traffic sign. The Deputy lifted the blanket I had thrown over the poor soul and pushed the screamer in for a closer look. “Do you mind if we take a little more time in clearing this road sir?,” said the Deputy to the young man. “Take all the time you need Officer, I am so sorry!,” came the reply.

As the young man trotted back to his car and I got into my unit it occurred to me that I had just witnessed that Deputy’s cure for rubbernecking. It is not like the movies or episodes of Law and Order. The real deal is brutal and tough to take, even for seasoned police officers.

The father succumbed to his injuries 2 weeks later in the hospital. The guilt of his daughter’s death was going to be a difficult burden had he lived. He had been preoccupied and didn’t look to his right before attempting to cross the highway.

There are 20 million licensed drivers in Texas. About 3800 people, on average, die every year in traffic accidents here. I was safer the other day flying back from Seattle, in a MD80 airplane, than I was driving the 20 miles from the airport to my house in my Bimmer.

This is my cure for rubbernecking….think of the horrific scene in that Toyota the next time you go past an accident. Keep your hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, keep your attention focused on your own driving. That guy in the red truck in front of you is not a fan of this blog…be prepared to take evasive action!

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4 responses to “The Cure for Rubbernecking

  1. Wise words, keep your eyes on the road.

  2. Boy this is powerful and I completely agree. Having been a nurse anesthetist before I became a lawyer I spent many a night when I would rather have been sleeping trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Usually it didn’t work. People do need to mind their own business when it comes to accidents. If you want to see the gore, google it. There’s plenty of accident pictures on the internet and you can look at them for a much longer time if that’s what makes ya happy!

  3. I promise , I will try and never rubberneck again.
    And I pray some day those horrible memories will be erased from your mine and replaced with only the pleasant ones. Joyce K

  4. Rubber-Neckers drive me crazy but generally because I am impatient.

    Thank you for the story – great writing. This really helps to solidify why I could never work in your field… not strong enough 😦

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