By Christopher Cudworth
Whether you call it rubbernecking or gaper’s block, the fact that traffic can back up for miles on an expressway or other road because people slow down to look at a seeming tragedy is proof that there really is no higher purpose among people who drive on roads rather than ride a bike or run.
Gaper’s blocks emphatically demonstrate that people are driving with priorities other than getting where they’re going on time. The prurient, vacuous gape of a driver straining to see another person being carted away on a stretcher, or even–God Forbid–actual body parts spattered over the ground is just too delicious to ignore, now isn’t it?
Those of us who run and ride don’t really need gaper’s blocks to see the world more clearly. Our intimate relationship with the roads on which we run and ride is food for thought every day. But in order to maintain that relationship with the world around us, we are often forced to become “road warriors” to survive, fighting through the rushed vision of a jealously guarded commuter world that crowds the roads and numbs the mind. Comfortably numb, Pink Floyd called it.
Short, sharp shocks to the mind
The antidote to any sort of numbness is shock. And that’s precisely what gaper’s blocks are all about. They hold potential to deliver shock and awe and a heavy dose of “There but for the grace of God go I…”
Gaper’s blocks are an opportunity, often for just a moment, to feel more fortunate than others, and slightly more superior in having not succumbed to tragedy. Because when you gape at a state policeman filling out a ticket there is relief that you are not the person getting “nailed.” Or when the shattered car or truck parts rest in puddles of coolant or blood you give a short shudder and realize how easy it is to lose focus for a minute and maybe die. The pull of tragedy is too strong for many people to resist. So we slow down and stare.
A question of intent
Of course gaper’s blocks are a huge inconvenience to thousands of people every day. One wonders: What makes people obsessed enough to slow down when the reason they’re on the road in the first place is to get to work on time?
Yet the gaper’s block magnifies, sometimes backing up traffic for miles and miles. Frustration mounts. Road rage ensues. Then you get past the point where the roadside attraction occurred and traffic opens up. You’re on your way while muttering to yourself, “Idiots” at the thought that so many people could not resist slowing down to look at the misfortune of another.
Ugly human nature
It happens every day. What that tells us about human nature is that people subconsciously acknowledge the value of tragedy. People need it, in fact, to shake themselves out of their personal doldrums. The nightly TV news is one giant gaper’s block if you think about it. We stare numbly at the TV as talking heads blather on about another shooting in a poor neighborhood in the city. We see the requisite crying mother and angry neighbor complaining that the cops never do anything and there are too many guns in the street. Yet we essentially drive on by. Other people’s problems barely occupy our consciousness. We are truly numb to their needs or their lives. For they are another race or gender. Another orientation. A being separate from humanity. Someone just on TV. The Other. Barely worth of a gaper’s block. We are comfortably numb. Zombies.
The supposed cure
Reality can seem too complicated to consider, and that is why so many people enjoy fictional shows where zombies roam the streets shedding body parts and getting splatter shots in the head by people who really know how to handle their guns.
Of course that’s the same thing that’s happening on our real streets. There was even a case of a guy down in Florida somewhere trying to eat another person alive.
Zombies aren’t real, we tell ourselves. At least we think they’re fiction. But it seems like some people can’t really separate the two worlds, and hence the huge market for “reality” shows. Every one of them is a new form of gaper’s block, a glimpse into tragedy or prurient obsession that reveals…Southern idiocy. Hillbilly habits. Cops. Robbers. Child beauty pagaents.
All are roadside attractions. They offer nothing but curiosity and tragedy, and cure nothing.
Yet when a motorist rolls up behind a living, breathing cyclist or runner making use of the side of the road to exercise, hardly a driver alive on this earth seems to want to slow down and separate “hazards” (the way we are taught to drive…) in order to accommodate another human being making legal use of the roadway.
We must suppose these selfish drivers do not consciously or subconsciously recognize the merit of legitimate exercise and equal rights of ownership constituted by those who use our public roads for recreation and transportation by bike or on foot. We are not behaving like proper zombies, you see. Being alive is frowned upon.
Instead a backlash has formed principally against cyclists who disobey traffic laws. That habit endangers motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike. Valid points.
Who are the real zombies?
But we’re also in need of a discussion about who the real zombies are on the roads. Because gaper’s blocks are raw evidence that the attention of many drivers is not on their intent, which is getting somewhere on time, but on finding distractions and entertainment while in the act of driving.
That might mean gaping at a roadside accident or it might mean sending a text, making cellphone calls, getting GPS readings, switching radio channels or scarfing an Egg McMuffin. These are all responses to appetites. People are like zombies feeding on human brains, only those brains are our own.
The zombie world
See, it’s not cyclists disobeying traffic laws that are the real problem in society. It’s that society is so skewed toward motorized transportation that we’ve gutted even the need to pay attention to get where we’re going. Pretty soon we’re going to have vehicles that drive themselves, leaving us free to be road zombies as we drive to and from work or wherever else we’re going. But is that a good thing?
The question this raises is simple: If we don’t seem to need or choose to use our brains to function in tasks such as driving any more, why not turn them over to something useful, like zombie food, scientific research or watching endless hours of NFL games?
That last suggestion is a legitimate concern. If their current ad campaigns are any indication pro football apparently wants mindless devotees who think about nothing other than the sport. Live the football life. Play Fantasy Football.
But what it’s really all about is finding an obsession powerful enough to distract you from responsibility to others and caring about anything other than prurient fantasies of violence, speed and carnage. See the connections here? People that are conditioned to obsess about their own selfish interests and violent fantasies cannot possibly drive the roads with a concern for others unless, as gaper’s blocks prove, there is violence and carnage to be found there. Then it’s worth slowing down for a look. That’s the tarsnake of modern transportation.
Trick or treat
Against this stage of prurient obsessions and destructive tendencies we run and ride into a world where there is no guarantee that anyone is paying attention unless there is already a tragedy afoot, or one about to occur. It’s just like Trick or treat.
It makes you wonder whether our distracted, zombie-like population is now a mindless majority that would rather run us over and eat our brains. Whole segments of society who have willingly turned themselves into “dittoheads” and other anthemic devotees are hardly what enlightened leaders from Jesus to the Dalai Lama have envisioned for a better humanity.
Halloween every day
Instead it’s like very much like Halloween out there every day of the year, because the prospects of riding or running among distracted driver’s is pretty much a scary proposition. You obviously increase your odds of destruction by disobeying traffic laws, but the real problem is a world where zombies drive 2000 lb. vehicles. Isn’t that scary enough for you?