Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Circular thinking

        I saw my first roundabout several years ago when driving to the Topeka correctional facility to interview inmates who raise puppies for a local dog assistance program. First impressions linger longest, they say, certainly the case in point here. Rather than proceed blindly into the newfangled contraption, I pulled to the shoulder to study it. Then I opened the map to chart a different route.

As a whole, Americans welcomed roundabouts, or traffic circles, with rancorous vitriol. Citizen committees and organizations opposed them bitterly, in some instances taking legal action. But if the average driver considered roundabouts the equivalent of radioactive waste, highway departments embraced them with open arms. In short order some of the most dangerous intersections in the country were transformed into what many believed were little more than circular mazes, confusing, frightening and, above all, dangerous.

I’m anything but ambivalent about roundabouts. When the city of Manhattan added one to its second-busiest street, I made a mental note to avoid it at all costs. And I have. But on the open road in rural Kansas roundabouts are beginning to crop up with increased frequency, replacing high-traffic intersections in out-of-the-way places where one would least expect them. Such was the case when my wife and I followed her great-grandmother’s wagon-train diary from Blue Rapids to Eureka Springs, Ark., last year. I was not amused.

Traffic engineers spout data and statistics and facts that prove them to be safer than four-way intersections. A study conducted for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concluded that roundabouts reduce collisions of all types by 39 percent, reduce injury collisions by 76 percent, and reduce fatal and incapacitating collisions by about 90 percent. Other studies match those percentages. Roundabouts also keep traffic flowing which reduces air pollution, noise and fuel consumption. 

Maybe so. But they also bewilder drivers, and bewildered drivers are never a good thing. Or so I used to think.

Recently I came across an article from a traffic engineer who admitted that roundabouts were dangerous. As this was a deviation from the standard axiom, I continued reading rather than my usual response of shouting invectives and stuffing the offending publication into the trash.

They’re dangerous, he said, because most drivers don’t have enough experience to comfortably circumnavigate them. They’re dangerous because drivers can be counted on to do the exact wrong thing. They’re dangerous because traffic is constantly moving and doesn’t come to a stop so people have little time to react. They’re dangerous because they make drivers uncomfortable if not downright terrified. And that, he said, is what makes them so safe.

Inattention is the leading cause of collisions in intersections. But when faced with a roundabout, most drivers pay attention, studies show. They have to, he stressed. It doesn’t matter that they’re confused or scared or angry or bitter (in my case, all the above)—that sense of heightened awareness is why roundabouts consistently make traffic flow more efficient and safer.

To paraphrase, the author, “The average driver approaches a roundabout as he would a snarling dog. If he thinks he’s about to get chewed up and spit out, he’s going to be fully conscious and aware of his surroundings and his actions.”

In other words, fear is good.

Suddenly it made sense, though in a roundabout way. Yet when less than 24 hours after reading the article we came upon a traffic circle outside of Florence where Highway 50 collides with Highway 77, my first reaction was of rage. “Idiots!” I shouted. “Anyone who likes roundabouts should be exiled!”

My wife tried placating me, pointing out the obvious: only one vehicle was approaching the roundabout and it would get there before we would.

“Doesn’t matter,” I spat. “I can still see it.”

“What a baby,” my wife sighed.

I remembered the intersection as having a stop sign for north- and southbound traffic. This time I cruised through with only minor slowing, something I knew was a convenience but hated to admit. 

I thought about what the engineer said all day, and the more I thought about it the more sense it made. My response on entering the roundabout was precisely what he said it would be. Maybe, I reasoned, if Americans were approached with gut-level honesty about why roundabouts work—the fear factor rather than endless homilies—they might reach greater acceptance, however grudgingly.

On our return leg, somewhere in the middle of the Flint Hills, we came to a busy intersection with four-way stop signs. It seemed so wasteful, so primitive, so disruptive, that I found myself saying the one thing I never thought I would.

“They need a roundabout here,” I said.

Lori studied me with an odd gleam in her eye. “You constantly amaze me,” she said.

“Just going with the flow,” I said brightly. 


mikec4193 said...

Hi Tom

I have lived in upstate NY (Malta) for most of my life and in the past 3-4 years they have built 11 round-abouts in my once sleepy little isnt sleepy anymore...almost dizzy now...I traverse through 8 of them everyday trying to get to and from my jobs...

Tom Parker said...

Mike -- That's a terrifying account. The stress of having to navigate eight of them every day would probably shave a few years off my life.

But hey, they're safer, right? I keep trying to tell myself that but somehow it never really sticks.

cheryl said...

Semis keep rolling over at the Emporia roundabout. They don't slow down to the recommended 15 mph.

So, they worked on it - and made it a one-lane roundabout instead of the two-lane roundabout. I don't know that it will make trucks slow down, but it's much saner.

Tom Parker said...

I believe that's a case of idiot truckers. Redesigning it probably won't have much impact.

Carol said...

This piece is beautifully written, Tom. Your wry humor reminds me of the work of another of my favorite authors. :-)
You and Max both make me enjoy reading. Thanks for sharing.

shoreacres said...

I told your story to an English friend who has eleven roundabouts between her and London. She swears it shaves huge amounts of time off her commute, and perhaps it does - since they're very common, have been for years and everyone understands them.

The biggest problem with the occasional roundabout here is that people who aren't used to them either slow down or slam on the brakes while they try and figure out what they're supposed to do. That's my theory, anyhow.

As for the truckers - there are plenty of idiots in trucks as well as cars, but asking a fully-loaded and rolling semi to suddenly slow down to 15 mph is its own sort of idiocy.

Unknown said...

Saturday morning on a hot day enroute to a garage sale with my wife driving is a real treat when we enter one of those two lane round-abouts. She's got it figured out that you stay in the outside lane if proceeding straight through, but when I tell here the GPS just said that we need to go left or South, then we have a problem, at which point I close my eyes, after all she's the driver.

Let me know Tom when you find that first roundabout out in the Flint Hills, I'll get into 4-wheel drive and look for an open gate.

Tom Parker said...

Linda -- Actually, there are plenty of warnings on the approaches to roundabouts, so truckers have been forewarned. They're probably texting so they don't see the signs.

Agreed on the problems associated with unfamiliarity and drivers. I've witnessed the same reaction of brakes applied and puzzled looks. That works okay if nobody is behind you, otherwise not so well.

I suspect that once roundabouts become more common, drivers will find them easier to navigate and possibly even grow a little fond of them. That time is not yet.

Tom Parker said...

Don— Had there been an open gate I might have opted for that route. It would certainly have been more scenic and far, far less hazardous.

TodMegredy said...

Tom, when I first encountered the roundabout at Florence, my response was similar to what I would have expected it to be upon seeing a free-range elephant on the Kansas prairie: "That's odd."

Tom Parker said...

Odd—and so very, very wrong. Against the natural order.