Commentary: Roundabouts bring out the inner-car racer in all of us

There are few things more nerve-wracking than relying on our fellow humans while merging into traffic. Easily half the drivers on Interstate 95 are either talking on their cell phones, texting on their cell phones, or shopping for their next cell phone on their cell phones.

It’s never been easier to drive distracted, which makes driving into roundabouts among the scariest things we can do in a car. (The scariest thing, of course, would be losing a signal for the cell phone.)

Roundabouts are circular intersections in which traffic flows in one direction around an island and exits onto various intersecting roads. Traffic is supposed to yield to cars already in the roundabout, but they mostly seem to appeal to the inner-Indianapolis 500 racer in all of us.

Signs like “Slow” and “Yield” lose all meaning; it’s as if every car is trying to make it through an imaginary yellow traffic light at the same time.

Safety is a selling point

Ironically, safety is the biggest selling point of roundabouts. They reduce the likelihood of run-on crashes because of the traffic pattern — the curves force drivers to slow down.

They’re considered safer even than traffic signals and stop signs, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claims they’re better than other traffic circles and junctions.

Their study of roundabouts that replaced junctions reported 40% fewer vehicle collisions, 80% fewer injuries, and 90% fewer serious injuries and fatalities.

It certainly doesn’t seem any safer when I’m struggling to merge into traffic while the teenager in the car barreling toward me is balancing a burrito on his steering wheel.

Honking horns and screaming obscenities

I was 17 when I had my first brush with death in Stratford. My driver’s license was still shiny and new when I got off at I-95’s Exit 32 and entered a world for which I was wholly unprepared.

Suddenly, I felt as if I were pedaling a Big Wheel onto the track at Daytona. Horns honked and obscenities were screamed as cars careened around me. They seemed to be coming at me from all directions, and slowing down just seemed to enrage my fellow drivers even more.

I pulled over and promised myself I’d never drive in Stratford again … right after I checked to see if I’d soiled my pants.

Roundabouts vs. rotaries

The problem is it’s hard to judge whether something is a roundabout or a rotary, and there are so few of these around that few know how to drive properly in them.

In roundabouts, oncoming cars yield to all traffic within the circle; in rotaries, cars within the circle must yield to merging traffic. In essence, cars yield to the left in roundabouts and to the right in rotaries.

In Stratford, however, one has to do both. Cars must yield to oncoming traffic from the highway or from West Broad Street but not to oncoming traffic coming from Main Street or Beardsley Avenue.

In other words, you can tell the out-of-towners by their screams and dilated pupils as they swerve and skid their way through the roundabout.

A character defect

It would be easier if the locals bothered to follow the rules. Instead, some of my neighbors seem to think that properly yielding in a roundabout demonstrates a character defect or admission of defeat.

Others brake inexplicably to waiting traffic at stop signs, causing a chain of screeching tires behind them. Still others view the challenge of fitting their cars into the tiny spaces between hurtling vehicles off the highway as too irresistible to pass up.

Regardless, entering a roundabout always reminds me to change my brake pads and keep buying cars with V-8 engines. Whenever possible, I yield to common sense and avoid them altogether.

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