Coming around? Roundabouts can drive you crazy
I’ve sat through enough public meetings over the years to know that if you really want to fill up a room, propose a major change or sometimes even a minor change, to a street or highway. While there are other topics that folks are passionate about, roads are in a category all their own. Unlike taxes, which are paid once, roads are pretty much permanent and impact our lives every day. Moreover, we all are experts about roads because we drive on them every day. As a result, we have strong opinions about how they should be designed.
Within this touchy subject area, there is no greater lightning rod than the traffic circle. These road features also go by the name of roundabouts, but I’ve heard them called turnabouts, roustabouts and a variety of other permutations in the heat of debate.
Each profession has a defining topic that separates it from common sense. In law, this occurs when your attorney tells you that you need to pay money to someone who is suing you even when you have done nothing wrong. That advice is often correct, but almost never well received. Roundabouts are the engineering equivalent of the nuisance settlement in law. Engineers can demonstrate with reams of data that roundabouts are safer, but very few people seem to buy the explanation.
I have had my own personal battle with roundabouts over the years. The anxiety that I would suffer anticipating a particularly challenging roundabout on LaPorte Avenue in Valparaiso, Ind., used to ruin every trip that I took to visit my daughter in college. Anticipating the two lanes of traffic flying into the circle used to raise my heart rate and give me sweaty palms before I even crossed the Wisconsin state line.
My fear of roundabouts ended about a year ago when I had the life-changing experience of reading a letter to the editor written by an irate Illinois driver who took Wisconsin drivers to task over a variety of transgressions from driving too slow in the left lane on the expressway to passing on the right. Included in his blistering critique was the observation that all one needs to do, to successfully navigate a traffic circle, is to yield to traffic coming from the left. Rather than becoming defensive due to the author’s liberal use of the word idiotic, as in “idiotic Wisconsin drivers,” I embraced his advice. I am not sure that I’m a better driver as a result, but the number of obscene gestures that I receive on the Tri-state dropped by about 30 percent.
The new-found confidence that I gained as a result of following the “Illinois explanation” may be about to change, however, as the result of a revelation that I had at a public meeting addressing a Department of Transportation road plan earlier this year. There, a speaker remarked that roundabouts actually are built backwards, inasmuch as the rule of road, at uncontrolled intersections, is to yield to traffic coming from the right. I checked out his version of the facts in my son’s driver’s education textbook and my palms, once again, started to sweat. What I had found so compelling about the Illinois explanation is that I thought it provided a “one-size-fits-all” rule on how to deal with any convergence of roads that does not involve numerous stop signs. I had forgotten the rule on uncontrolled intersections sometime in the early 1980s, preferring to come to a full stop and shutting the engine off when approaching one, ever since. While that rabid letter to the editor had given me the confidence to take on traffic circles, in retrospect, it provided me with a completely false sense of security in other traffic situations.
The debate about roundabouts is always lively, but also a little depressing. Most folks eventually concede that the engineers are probably correct, but that we, as Americans, are incapable of navigating them, because we are not smart enough. I tend to fall in this cynical camp and end up feeling bad about myself when the meeting ends.
In defense of the engineers, they are charged with the thankless task of trying to keep us safe when we, ourselves, like to fudge, a little, things like following the posted speed limit. In every city where I have worked, impassioned pleas of residents to lower a neighborhood speed limit because of “outsiders” racing on their streets almost invariably results in tickets issued to residents of the very same neighborhood.
The answer to these problems isn’t clear. One thing that I have noticed, however, is that roads are becoming larger and more grandiose. Federal standards are often at the root of these design features since federal dollars pay for a lot of the work on state roads. While I realize that the population is growing and traffic counts are growing with them, I hope that policymakers realize that more asphalt means more snowplowing and increased maintenance costs, as well as more road salt entering our valuable lakes and streams.
As for me, it is apparent that I need to master the rules of the road before I take on federal transportation policy. If I disappear later this winter, send someone to look for me on that roundabout in Valparaiso.