What is it with the USA and Roundabouts? Wasting Time & Money, Reinventing a Wheel!

In surprise and great dismay, I nearly spat my mouthful of coffee all over my keyboard when I read the article More traffic experiments planned in Fayetteville a few minutes ago, from the Fayetteville Flyer.

Traffic circles, of a sort, were allegedly first built by the Romans in order to expedite chariot movements at busy intersections 2,000 years ago.  Some countries still use basic traffic circles and if you are an adrenalin junky, go to Paris and try driving on the one around the Arc de Triomphe when vehicles are flowing thick and fast!  However, what today are properly called “modern roundabouts” were invented half-a-century ago in 1960s Britain.

Let’s put that last fact in perspective.  The USA is 36 times larger than the UK but has only five-times the population, so Britain, relatively speaking, is very crowded, and on average, the roads are therefore a lot busier so getting traffic to flow smoothly and efficiently has long been a concern.  However, Britain is also dramatically safer than the USA, too, whether you measure road deaths against population, distance travelled or simply the number of motor vehicles in the country, so how do the Brits achieve much greater safety despite the traffic situation?  One of the answers is our topic in this article: roundabouts.

Photo of a 'layout' or 'map' sign, well in advamnce of a roundabout, so that drivers know which exit they will require.
A British ‘map’ sign, well ahead of a roundabout, to show drivers which exit they will require. There are six potential destinations (including a U-turn) and three road-types: motorway (divided), main roads and minor road. The blue color of the sign has a specific meaning as do the white and green backgrounds to certain wording and the red ring around the “no trucks over 7.5 tons” symbol.  Very easy to understand in a split-second if drivers have been adequately informed.   Copyright image.

Did you know that compared to the older, multi-road intersections  which roundabouts have commonly replaced, roundabouts typically cut the number of serious injuries and fatal deaths in collisions by 80-90 percent?  It’s a huge safety gain that is very well worth employing.

In the USA, though, modern roundabouts have really only come into use since the start of this new century, and yet instead of using the long- and well-established guidelines that British road engineers have developed (simply reversing them, left-to-right, to allow for driving on opposite sides of the road) it appears that Americans have almost literally decided to re-invent the wheel, and in doing so they are spoiling the possibilities that roundabouts can offer.

Leaving aside the aspects I have already mentioned in other posts — namely the bad signing on the approach to American roundabouts and the failure to teach drivers how to use roundabouts correctly, with maximum safety — there is the problem that the designs being used will make it difficult if not impossible for the USA to use roundabouts in a situation where they come into their own:  complex intersections (i.e. locations with more than four roads).

And why is America doing this?  Well, unfortunately, I have long-since come to these informed conclusions:

  1. The American federal and state governments insist on treating all drivers like idiots who are incapable of driving acceptably well;
  2. Significant fault for the poor standard of driving, however, actually lies with the said federal and state governments for using incompetent people to write state drivers manuals and other official documentation when the selected authors clearly had or have virtually zero knowledge of good driving standards themselves;
  3. To exacerbate the problem, if you treat drivers like idiots and teach them bad techniques then they’re going to drive like idiots… but as already stated a lot of this is not their fault. Don’t even mention the standard of typical U.S. driving tests!
  4. Had long-established, best-practice rules been put in place for roundabouts from Day 1, here in the USA, and drivers been given tried and tested education about complying with those rules, then roundabouts could be built and used here even for the most complex of intersections, and drivers from all 50 states would be able to cope with them.  However it now seems that roundabouts here are typically getting so pigeon-holed in their design that they will become limited in their application, and that is a terrible waste of a good opportunity for helping to save lives.

Even American highway engineers’ own national guidelines, in the less-than snappily-titled Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (or ‘MUTCD’, which still isn’t very snappy), doesn’t always help.  It is meant to lay down the national rules for precisely how road signs and road/pavement markings should be used and yet on my travels to instruct, all around the U.S., I continually see various states simply doing their own thing and ignoring the MUTCD.  Why does this matter?  The answer is consistency.  How can drivers possibly be expected to drive as well as they should if they come to signs — or in this case roundabouts — being used in different ways from one town to another, one county to another, or one state to another?

Not only does this confusion already exist in relation to roundabouts, which are most definitely being treated differently from state-to-state, but drivers are still afraid of roundabouts because they have been introduced without any single state educating drivers on the best — as in safest — way to use them!  Here we go again… treating drivers like idiots!

Well-informed and adequately-trained drivers would easily be able to cope with this rather small roundabout in Norway.

And I haven’t even properly mentioned Fayettville yet!

So, engineers of Fayettville, here is a series of comments and questions, in the same order as the quotations are found in the ‘Flyer’ article:

  1. Quote: “…A roundabout allows for clear and purposeful traffic flow without requiring bicyclists or drivers to come to a complete stop…” – This is an inaccurate statement. Of course bicyclists and drivers do frequently have to come to a complete stop at roundabouts, whenever something is coming to which they have to yield.  Before I’m accused of semantics, I am not making this comment for that purpose.  On the contrary, it is always important to make accurate statements that cannot even remotely be misinterpreted by road users.  Indeed, this is especially relevant when such a statement is followed — as in this case — by words like these: “This is particularly important for bicyclists ascending a hill who lose momentum at stop signs and are not able to flow at the pace of traffic.”
  2. Quote (to reiterate the key point of this response): “…Roundabouts… are one of the Federal Highway Administration’s Proven Safety Countermeasures…” –  So, given that the value is “proven,” the much greater experience and expertise that have soundly created that proof is being ignored for *what* reason?
  3. Quote: “…The roundabout was designed by the City of Fayetteville’s Engineering Department in accordance with MUTCD guidelines for roundabout intersection design…”  Questions:  Did the blue color meet MUTCD guidelines?  If so, I’m curious about why blue.  The only logical colors would be either white or yellow (to match lane-line white, or more appropriately, center-line yellow).  So what does blue actually achieve in terms of road safety standards?  And why are there pictures of different types of vehicle on the roundabout island?  What do they achieve, apart from prettiness and a possible distraction factor for drivers who are visiting that location for the first time?  If they are meant to indicate direction of travel then, for clarity, only chevrons or arrows should be used.
  4. Quote: “… [the] vertical component of an asphalt dome resulted in much higher compliance than the previous project…” – A little reading would have spared the need to experiment and spoil the first project.
  5. Quote: “…Future treatments may benefit from a more incremental or stepped process that includes evaluation of signage and paint…” – Same comment as for the previous point.
  6. Quote: “…41% of [motorists indicated that] they felt roundabouts were less safe than four-way stops…”  This is directly due to the lack of adequate driver education in the context of roundabouts.
  7. Quote: “…Many survey comments raised concerns about… a general lack of driver education about navigating roundabouts in Fayetteville and the State of Arkansas…” – Comment: Q.E.D.
  8. The right-hand photograph on page 7 shows a very bizarre asymmetrical yellow perimeter line around the central island, with one side (bottom left) effectively straight, which doesn’t even make sense.
  9. Accurate and adequate enforcement naturally is needed, to ensure that the speeding stops, that drivers *and* bicyclists yield when they should, that everyone circulates around the island correctly, AND that drivers and riders signal correctly, on the approach, travelling through and exiting the roundabout, as applicable.  But sadly, this aspect is being deliberately and immaturely ignored by all powers-that-be in U.S. driving standards — a stunning example of why those standards are so inadequate and exacerbate rather than alleviate the crashes and casualties situation in America.
  10. Finally, for those people concerned about having small (“mini”) roundabouts in small intersections, and whether that is wise, it is of course why mini roundabouts were invented, and they work perfectly well.
Photograph of a mini-roundabout in an urban setting in Britain.
Mini roundabout in an urban setting in Britain. (The fact that driving and the direction to travel around roundabouts are the opposite way around between the UK and the US is irrelevant. The laws of physics and safe driving are unchangeable.)

See also: Driving: The USA Continues to Get it Wrong with Roundabouts

Eddie Wren, CEO & Chief InstructorAdvanced Drivers of North America


Author: EddieWren

Eddie Wren is the CEO and Chief Instructor at Advanced Drivers of North America. His driver safety background is given at: http://www.advanceddrivers.com/ceochief-instructors-resumecvbio/

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