What does Gaper Delay

Susan's Scribblings the Blog

At least once a week I come across a traffic accident. These days fender benders (more like crushers) seem to involve three or four vehicles at a time. The days of a dent in the front of one vehicle and the rear of the one in front of it are gone. In its place are mutilated tin foil masses with tires on them.

On a major highway the most common problem is simply going way too fast. Second place goes to misjudgments in timing when changing lanes or watching for sudden stops. Auto manufacturers have discarded the good, sturdy metal bumper for a sleek fiberglass thing which should be relegated to the Ferrari on the Autobahn. This is why crash tests measure how the "cabin" holds up in a collision; they know everything sticking out of the main passenger portion of the vehicle is doomed in a crash, so as long as the sitting space is protected, they can feel they have done their part to keep drivers safe.

Once vehicles have been compromised by running into each other, the passengers who can exit their rides have the ignominious distinction of standing off to one side with their faces set in the “I never saw this one coming” expression. The cell phones come out and calls are made to expectant parties to inform of pending lateness, while the police and tow trucks and flatbeds seal off the area so it can be stared at and notes taken.

These all results in what traffic reporters on the rush hour newscasts call the Gaper Delay, because people actually slow down to look at the scene and gape with mouths open at the results. It's probably an instinctive “there but for the grace of God and my good driving ability go I” kind of moment. In order to properly gape, one must get to the point of passing the area of ​​the accident. This can take anywhere from ten minutes to two hours to accomplish.

A properly run Gaper Delay consists of each vehicle in the traffic jam yielding to the principle that, if every vehicle lets another squeeze over into the reduced field of open lanes, everybody can move somewhat faster. This one I just experienced did not run properly. The lucky folks riding in the left lane against the infamous “Jersey barriers” (which is technically against the law) loved having clear passage and would not let vehicles to their right merge. I was in lane three, so I had to drive for about half a mile before I got into lane two.

What also bothers me about these delays is that people in accidents exit their vehicles while other cars are driving by at normal speed (which is about ten miles per hour higher than posted). If all vehicles would stop the minute an accident happens, the victims might be able to get to the median or the side of the road (whichever is closer) quicker. Instead of gaping, we would be acknowledging that life has been slightly disrupted, and that those involved matter. Then we can navigate our way around so the police and rescue teams can do their job. Of course nobody thinks about that while rushing through life, but when you think about it, our mouths gape open for all of us at least once: when the last breath of life is through.

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