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Why Americans Don’t Understand the Roundabout
In 2013 the British Roundabout Appreciation Society (yes, there is one and don’t laugh) awarded Columbus Circle, in New York City, Best Roundabout in the World.
A little about roundabouts, according to British journalist Stephen Beard, “The roundabout is said to have flourished in Britain because it requires the British virtues of compromise and cooperation. The U.S.’s more aggressive, confrontational culture may explain why the roundabout has not been more widely adopted by Americans.”
Compromise and cooperation? Has this man never attempted Hemel Hempstead’s “Magic Roundabout”, which is, in fact six smaller roundabouts? And how about trying to get out of Heathrow airport, which is basically a zoo of mini roundabouts encased in a giant one? Or the roundabouts that are so humungous and congested they require several sets of traffic lights to keep everything under control?
But I digress. Apparently, over the past decade the U.S. has installed over three thousand British-style roundabouts, in part because they are cheaper to maintain than traffic lights. And national resistance from Americans, from Americans, I find the U.S. roundabout experience far less stressful and death defying than its British counterpart.
For a start, American roundabouts (not to be confused with larger traffic circles like Dupont in Washington D.C.) are quite often smaller and single lane, meaning that the traffic is moving relatively slowly and there’s no panicking about having to move to the center if you’re going all the way round. You’re all the way round before you know where you are. (Two lane roundabouts do exist and require drivers to choose a lane depending on their desired exit.) American roundabouts also don’t come in litters; one is usually quite enough for your average driver.
Of course, there is one downside to roundabouts here, Americans often haven’t a clue what to do. Used to traffic lights and stop signs with clear rules about who is to go first and when, many Americans loathe roundabouts, and it shows. To quote a 2009 Slate article “… we have grown used to (and feel comfortable with) binary, on-off traffic control. We suspect such signals are more efficient than the “fuzzy logic” that seems to govern roundabouts. Roundabouts require drivers to make their own decisions and assess others’ actions, rather than relying on third-party signals.” Most states actually have rules on how to approach and drive around roundabouts, however, I know from my teens’ recent Drivers’ Ed. experiences, it isn’t stressed in lessons and rarely tested in the exam.
Most Departments of Transportation state that drivers must yield to cars already circling the roundabout; there is no merging. And yet, there is always the driver who looks you square in the eye then bolts out, despite your rightful claim to the right of way by dint of already being on the roundabout and approaching from the left. And let’s not forget the person who mistakes “Yield” for “Stop” and comes to a complete and utter halt despite the glaring absence of oncoming traffic.
Many U.S. roundabouts add an element of danger with pedestrian crosswalks situated right next to the exits. Not only do you have to contend with drivers cutting you off to exit from the inside lane, but as soon as you turn off, you come across someone in the middle of the road.
This is a great mini video clip showing passengers crossing and where drivers have to stop.
Here are some fun roundabout facts:
• According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there is on average a 40% decrease in all accidents and a 90% drop in fatal ones when a traffic intersection is replaced by a roundabout.
• Washington leads the states in roundabouts, followed by Colorado, California, Florida and Kansas
• France has over 30,000 British-style roundabouts; the most in the world.
Have you mastered the roundabout?