More roundabouts and we still don’t have the hang of it

Phil Berg
Car Culture

Why is it taking so long for drivers to learn to navigate the traffic roundabouts that have popped up in the past few years in suburban Detroit? I've noticed a few things:

First, these circular intersections without traffic signals seem to take a lot more planning than we're used to when driving. In fact, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) website instructs drivers to plan ahead when approaching a roundabout, and think about plotting a course from entry to exit. That's not something a car's nav system or your smartphone's GPS can do for us.

Next, unless you learned to drive in New Jersey or in other crazy places ripe with blocked arteries like London or Paris (the UK and France have a combined 60,000 traffic roundabouts; the U.S. now has 3,700, up from just 25 in 1997), you may have an undeveloped sense of judging “gap distance,” a term road designers use to calculate the traffic capacity of a road. It's how we decide when to merge and when to stop. In a roundabout intersection, the only instruction we get is to yield to the car approaching to our left, so we have to think harder.

And finally, we're getting some mixed instructions on how to negotiate a roundabout: Driving schools instruct students driving in a multiple-lane roundabout to yield to traffic on the right as they prepare to exit the roundabout, while the law says yield to traffic on the left. We are told not to stop inside the roundabout to let other vehicles enter, yet the MDOT website instructs us to stop to avoid a collision with a vehicle that is entering a roundabout.

I learned to drive as a teen living in Washington, D.C., long enough ago that most cars did not have tires with radial ply construction or FM radios. So not only couldn't we entertain ourselves with texting and linked media devices, we also learned how to negotiate the capital city's famous traffic circles. We expressed our teenage creativity by seeing how many times we could complete laps of the large roundabouts such as the massive Chevy Chase circle on Connecticut Avenue. I once asked a girlfriend passenger to pick a number between 1 and 10 — she said 10, and so that's how many laps of the Massachusetts Avenue and Western Avenue circle I made. In my defense, at least we were watching the road rather than attempting to Instachat or Twittlegram.

But we baby boomers are not responsible for roundabouts. These intersections came about because of the design of city thoroughfares, created in Washtington D.C. by Pierre L’Enfant in early 1800, who influenced Detroit's designer Augustus B. Woodward, at almost the same time. So far in the U.S., only D.C. and Detroit have followed this type of “spokes-on-a-wheel” city plan.

What that tells me is that Michiganders should be more familiar with traffic circles than drivers elsewhere in the country. When the new roundabouts began to pop up in the suburbs, I figured we wouldn't have a problem. Roundabouts are marvelous things: Even though overall collisions in them may have increased —sometimes dramatically — they are much safer than conventional intersections with signals. There are almost no fatal T-bone crashes as there are in conventional intersections, where vehicles hidden by stopped traffic enter, or left-turners pull in front of oncoming traffic.

In time, we'll become expert roundabout drivers. I once was in a taxi where the driver made a deft move and went backward (clockwise) around one of the world's most famous rotary traffic circles, the Place de l’Etoille surrounding the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It normally jams to a standstill during rush hour, so extreme backwards merging tactics are necessary.

These days, I sometimes follow the advice given by MDOT about driving through a roundabout: “If you miss the exit, go around again.” So now I get to distract myself from the temptation of texting and phoneplay by practicing my gap timing and reminiscing when driving was fun. I just say to her: “Pick a number between 1 and 10.”