Traffic is going in circles. Armed with mounting data showing that roundabouts are safer, cheaper to maintain and friendlier to the environment, transportation experts around the country are persuading communities to replace traditional intersections with them.
Appearances notwithstanding, roundabouts, such as the one in Mt. Rainier, Md., are not the same thing as rotaries or traffic circles, experts say.
There’s just one problem: Americans don’t know how to navigate them.
“There’s a lot of what I call irrational opposition,” said Eugene R. Russell Sr., a civil engineering professor at Kansas State University and chairman of a national task force on roundabouts, sounding mildly exasperated in a telephone interview. “People don’t understand. They just don’t understand roundabouts.”
Back in 1972 David Pope and the Alethians did a song entitled “Darkness” where they sang, “Why this sense of missing out?/My life’s just a roundabout”. (And if yours is just that, click here). Four years later I found out what they were referring to: driving in the UK means navigating one roundabout after another. So I had to learn.
My roundabout technique involved the following:
- Approach the roundabout by putting the clutch in, only applying the brake if necessary (I was driving manual shift cars, Fords as it turned out).
- Drop the shift into second.
- Take a quick look to the right (remember that they drive on the left in the UK, so roundabouts go clockwise, not anti-clockwise as they do here).
- If nothing was in the half or so of the roundabout that presented itself to me, pop the clutch and tear into the roundabout, making sure that, if it was one of those two lane jobs, that I had an exit strategy.
I managed to terrify two Englishmen with this description, which is no mean feat considering that, on the whole, people in the old country tend to drive more aggressively than we do here. But I got the job done (both UK driving and terrifying Englishmen).
We now have a scattering of roundabouts here in Chattanooga. And, yes, there was a transition. The biggest problem here is that the Christian ethic is deeply rooted here to the extent that people tend to give way more readily than they do elsewhere. Roundabouts require a more forceful approach to driving.
But this isn’t Scots-Irish Appalachia for nothing, and, as Jeff Foxworthy notes about interstate on ramps, people are starting to look at these as personal challenges. They also make more sense in cities that, on the whole, tend to be more “European” in they layout (according to the terrain, not a grid) than their Northern (esp. Midwestern) counterparts.
Personally I think roundabouts are great. Anyone who has driven in the UK or Europe knows that it’s a different pace of driving, but also know that it, in many ways, flows better, especially given the less spacious road system. I just miss taking them in a standard shift, although no one else does…