by Joanne Garton
Cars are great for getaways, but not just from bank heists or bad dates. In our cars, we retreat from the world. Windows closed and radio on, we motor forward, following only the rules of the road. To drive is to be free, and as Americans, sometimes that’s all we really want when we get behind the wheel.
But not me. I’m an American driver looking for a meaningful cross-cultural driving experience. As one of two British parents, I spent many summers as a passenger in the backseat of my uncles’ cars in England, observing the country from the left side of the road and crossing intersections via roundabouts instead of traffic lights. When I moved to Montpelier, I was happy to find that my new hometown hosted a roundabout on Main Street. Better yet, the congested intersection at River Street and the Barre-Montpelier Road was being replaced with a roundabout. The British sense of practicality had reached the smallest corners of America, and to my delight, Montpelier was embracing the roundabout revolution.
Or so I thought. America understands the Beatles and Downton Abbey, but roundabouts remain as foreign and confusing as cricket.
So first, let’s examine how roundabouts work and why they matter.
In any country, roundabouts are obviously about moving traffic efficiently. If cars are on the other side of the roundabout, or better yet, if the roundabout is empty, a driver is free to roll in to the roundabout without stopping. No need to idle at a red light, no need to rev the engine from a standstill. And because roundabouts can direct multiple cars at once, traffic flows fast.
When used correctly, roundabouts are also safe. Their circular shape forces traffic to slow to 15 or 20 mph. The awareness and cooperation needed to enter and exit a roundabout discourages drivers from going on “autopilot,” blindly stepping on the gas pedal when the light turns green without checking for other drivers, bicyclists or pedestrians. Additionally, the triangular traffic islands placed at each entry or exit direct motorists counter-clockwise without signed instructions or traffic lights. Pedestrians can also use the islands as safe-havens mid-way through street crossings.
However, the numbers tell it all. In a study conducted by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in British Columbia, roundabouts had 35 percent fewer crashes, 90 percent fewer vehicle fatalities and 76 percent fewer vehicle-related injuries than similar intersections using four-way stop signs or traffic lights.
Roundabouts work as intended when drivers use their right-turn signal to show that they intend to leave the circle at the next exit. An incoming driver then knows that the path is clear and can enter the roundabout without waiting. As one car rolls out and another rolls in, an unspoken choreography yields a seamless flow of traffic. No wondering if it’s your turn, no waiting at the light.
But we’re blowing it.
In America, drivers rarely use their right-turn signal to indicate their exit from the roundabout. When entering the roundabout, I assume that a driver not using a turn signal will go past me and continue around the roundabout. By law, I must stop, and if this driver then exits before reaching me, I have stopped for nothing. There go the benefits of the roundabout.
So is it ignorance or obstinacy that prevents Americans from using roundabouts as the Queen intended? Perhaps few people realize that their turn signal is not used to get on the roundabout, but to get off it. Or maybe the tendency to have one hand on a phone and the other on the wheel makes it tough to use the turn signal. Both issues seem surmountable.
But maybe it’s more. Maybe our behavior on the roundabout is a metaphor for our behavior as Vermonters. As much as we appreciate the ideas of cooperation, safety and efficiency on the road, we haven’t quite figured out how to live them all. With no time carved out to ponder the meaning of the roundabout, we stumble through it, using it as we see fit, without wondering why it’s there in the first place.
In Britain, gas prices are high and cars are small. Efficient driving, as well as good public transportation, keep the dense urban population in Britain moving without going broke. In America, where roads are wide, cars come first, and gas is cheap; we go the extra mile instead of saving it. The desire to cooperate and conserve hasn’t yet been replaced by the absolute need to do so.
Roundabouts require skillful driving, artful communication and the conscious decision to drive with others in mind. They have the potential to change how we use our resources and how we work together on the road. But without a cultural pressure to examine how they work or why roundabouts matter, their meaning is lost. Roundabouts become just another way to have a traffic jam.
To improve our environment and quality of life, Vermonters make great efforts to eat and buy locally, invest in their communities and appreciate both their working and scenic landscapes. Roundabouts, although not as high profile, offer an easy way to achieve these same improvements. So if Vermonters have the compassion to compost, support local businesses, label GMOs and eat more kale, surely we can adopt the dance of the roundabout. In the process, we’ll save gas, improve safety and acknowledge our neighbors who share the road.
No friendly waves, though—your free hand should be on the turn signal.