Background: Traffic circles — which are not the same thing as roundabouts — were first used in Roman times, for chariots. ‘Modern roundabouts’ (the correct technical name) were first invented and put to use in Britain in the mid-1960s. The USA stuck with traffic circles and in some states ‘rotaries’ (also different) until early in this new, 21st Century and even now some states are still in this hiatus.
Why build roundabouts at all? The reasons are overwhelming. Using roundabouts improves traffic flow on busy roads or at previously-complex intersections, and — even more importantly — they reduce the occurrence of fatal and serious-injury crashes by well over ninety percent because they prevent T-bone/right-angle collisions, which in turn are extremely dangerous to vehicle occupants.
Situation: Many of America’s new ‘modern roundabouts’ — and I have encountered a lot in the many states in which I have instructed defensive- and advanced driving — are usually well-designed, except for three extremely important factors.
What are the problems that concern us?
The first is the fact that most roundabouts, to this day, in the USA do not have what one might call ‘map’ or ‘layout’ signs on each approach, showing drivers well in advance the exit they will need from the roundabout, to reach their destination. It is both arrogant and dangerous to assume that the drivers in any location are *all* local and all know which way to go at any intersection. And given that many drivers are still very uncomfortable on roundabouts — at least in part because of our third concern, below — anything that risks a driver swerving late to the right to take the exit they need, or swerving left, equally late, to stay on the roundabout when they were preparing to exit from it, is clearly dangerous and can cause collisions. Whether or not a collision results, such incidents serve to reinforce people’s fear of roundabouts and are therefore doubly damaging.
Our second concern follows from the first, in that the various lanes on American roundabouts do not always follow a set regime regarding which lane one should take for going left (properly described as being “more than half way around the roundabout”), going straight ahead, or turning right. In the absence of the above-mentioned map/layout signs, drivers only discover at the very last moment, just a few yards before reaching the actual roundabout, which lane they need to be in, and when this happens, yet more frantic and potentially dangerous swerves take place, but this time as lane changes, rather than “exit or stay”. Indeed, at roundabouts with more than four entry/exit roads — and quite rightly there are plenty like this — or at roundabouts where the entries and exits do not form a geometrically symmetrical crossroads, such last-minute lane allocations can be a real challenge.
Our third concern is that we know of no states that are advising people to use turn signals before entering roundabouts, during their journey through a roundabout (both ‘as applicable’) and always when leaving the roundabout. This is part of a systemic failure throughout the USA to educate drivers accurately how to drive around roundabouts correctly, and this failure has left a significant proportion of American drivers disliking or afraid of roundabouts — an immensely undesirable scenario.
All ADoNA training courses include full best-practice,theoretical training on how to correctly use roundabouts for maximum safety, and as long as there are any roundabouts near the training location you select, there will be full practical training as well.
Improving the Overall Situation
Around 2006-07, my own concern about what can only be classed as flaws in the correct design and use of roundabouts in America triggered me to start communicating with officialdom at national, state and local levels about the situation, but not for the first time, we were met with what can only be described as a stone wall— a total unwillingness to even acknowledge, let alone reply to, our communications on this important matter.
In exasperation, we have to ask what is this failure to employ the best-practices developed by other countries that have been using modern roundabouts for more than 60 years? Do the administrators concerned bizarrely believe that proven and refined safety techniques are of no importance here in America so they’re just going to do it their own way? I’m sorry, but either way this is grossly unacceptable and certainly gives the impression of arrogance — a case of “re-inventing the wheel but very badly.”
Use ‘map’/’layout’ signs on every approach to all except the most-localized of roundabouts, so that visiting or inexperienced drivers are not left floundering as to which lane to use on the approach to the roundabout or not knowing which exit they will need to take from the roundabout until they actually reach it.
Develop a single (i.e. national!) policy for which lanes drivers should use at any roundabout in the USA — based on the geometry of any particular roundabout — “except where signs show otherwise.” Such an over-arching rule would allow all American drivers the chance to understand the benefits and use of roundabouts, and should be in every state’s drivers’ manual, with exactly the same wording so that there can be no drift away from its exact meaning.
Teach drivers when and where to signal, on the approach, the transit through and the exit from any and every roundabout. It is a remarkably easy rule to learn. Failure to teach drivers this is to treat them like idiots, and if you treat drivers like idiots, they will all drive like idiots!
It is a sad but inescapable and relevant fact that the USA is effectively the worst-performing developed nation in the world when it comes to road safety and reducing an excessively high number of road deaths each year. With a death-rate more than four-times worse than the leading nations of Sweden and the UK, America has a very long way to go to improve its highway safety to even just an acceptable level.
Fashion plays a big part in modern life but it is highly doubtful whether road safety trends should ever be subject to it. Yet for years there has been a buzz going around regarding the settings for exterior mirrors. The method now being recommended is potentially risky and frankly has no benefits other than the promotion of laziness and the de-emphasis of reasonable care by drivers. No matter how well-intended, this technique should never be sanctioned.
This new but inappropriate method is incessantly promoted in the USA but would apply equally in any country with left-hand-drive vehicles, and is reversed for countries with right-hand-drive vehicles.
Let’s consider the rationale behind the new advice (illustration: ‘Car Two,’ below). It states, for the USA, that when setting the left-hand exterior mirror, a driver should place his/her head against the glass of the driver’s door window then align the exterior mirror to show just a thin sliver of the car bodywork. Traditional advice, however, states that the mirror adjustment should be made while seated normally for driving, not with one’s head against the glass.
Similarly, proponents of the new method say that the driver should lean to the right, until their head is central, across the width of the car, before setting the right-hand exterior mirror — again to show just the very edge of the car bodywork. Once again, the traditionalists state that this adjustment should be made while the driver is sat normally in the correct position for driving.
Those who recommend the new idea of ‘wider’ settings for the wing/exterior mirrors claim that the method reduces the need for a driver to glance over either shoulder and that it also gives a better view through the relevant exterior mirror, of cars that are alongside one’s own vehicles on a multi-lane highway. They also claim that it reduces unnecessary overlap between the views through interior and exterior mirrors (see the striped, green zones in illustration ‘Car One,’ below).
. Car OneCar Two
Car One: The ‘traditional’ way of setting the exterior mirrors. Note the lack of red-striped blind spots inside (i.e. below) the thick red lines. The green-striped areas denote overlap of the view from the interior and exterior mirrors.
These settings prevent any other vehicles, including motorcycles, from coming up behind, unseen.
Car Two: Setting the exterior mirrors ‘wide’. Note the large, red-striped blind spots inside (i.e. below) the thick red lines, andthe large areas of green above those same lines.
Depending on how wide a driver sets his exterior mirrors, this technique creates large, un-viewable blind spots that can hide other vehicles, all so that the driver concerned doesn’t feel obliged to do shoulder checks.
The question is, does this new ‘wide settings’ method actually do anything at all to enhance safety? The answer is a resounding ‘No!’ And under several circumstances it will have exactly the opposite effect.
Before detailing why this is such a bad method, it is important to take account of those people who, through neck injury, ailment or whatever, have genuine difficulty in turning their head to glance over their shoulder. If this is the case then one of three things can be done to make life easier and to ensure that the relevant blind spots can still be checked:
— Having (as always) made sure that one has a safe following distance from the vehicle ahead, the first option is to briefly rock forward, towards the steering wheel, as one looks into the relevant mirror. This gives exactly the same ‘wide’ view as does setting the mirror in that position in the first place, and it avoids the driver having to turn to look over their shoulder. Nobody is advocating that a driver sits too close or remains too close to the steering wheel when driving but, as long as it is safe to do so at the relevant moment, briefly leaning forwards will not cause problems.
— The second option is to have an additional wing mirror fitted on both sides of the car so that one on each side can be set in the proper, ‘traditional’ manner and the other can be set appropriately wide (the same concept as the pairs of mirrors in one housing used on each side of larger pick-up trucks).
— And the third possibility is to buy small, convex self-adhesive mirrors that can be stuck on to the bottom outer corner of each exterior mirror. These give only a small image for the driver to see but will show whether there is, in fact, another vehicle partially alongside.
Despite there actually being not one good reason to set the exterior mirrors ‘wide’, there are at least eight reasons why you should NOT position them like that, as follows:
1. On the question of overlap between interior and exterior mirrors, it is a sad fact of life that most drivers — assuming they use their mirrors at all — only check one mirror when they should be checking at least two. In this case, the question of overlap becomes a moot point and is quite possibly advantageous.
2. A good (meaning ‘attentive’) driver will always monitor all of the vehicles coming up behind at all times and, through concentration on the task at hand, will always know what vehicles may be alongside, in the relevant blind spots. In these circumstances, a shoulder check becomes necessary only to confirm the other vehicle’s exact location or, for example, whether it left the highway at an interchange one has just passed.
3. If exterior mirrors are set ‘wide’ then on highways there is a risk that a motorcycle could be hidden from sight in the relevant blind spots and as a result the rider(s) could be killed if a driver starts a turn or a lane change as the bike is coming up alongside, close to the vehicle. Even without a collision, it is a guarantee that the motorcycle rider will be frightened and/or angry. On urban roads with slow-moving traffic there is a similar danger in respect of bicyclists coming past, usually on the right-hand side of one’s vehicle, especially if near an intersection or driveway where the motor vehicle driver is about to turn right and leaves the signaling too late.
4. In all except two-seat sports cars and two-seat pick-up trucks, the view through the interior mirror will often be partially blocked by rear-seat head restraints, especially if such have been correctly adjusted for taller teenage or adult passengers. The heads of any such passengers will, of course, also increase any obstruction to the driver’s view. The view through the interior mirror is therefore often far less than perfect which means that the view directly to the rear through the exterior mirrors becomes much more important. This facility is lost if the exterior mirrors are set ‘wide’.
5. In longer vehicles, such as 7-seat mini vans* and the larger models of SUVs, the very length of the vehicle usually means that the view via the interior mirror, through the now more distant back window, is much narrower than it is in a shorter vehicle. This means that the view via the interior mirror covers a smaller angle and once again the view directly to the rear through the exterior mirrors becomes much more important. [*Glossary note: In some other countries, the U.S. ‘mini van’ is known as an MPV or a ‘people carrier’.]
6. If a mini van or an SUV has a double back door (as opposed to a lifting/lowering tailgate) the vertical metalwork between the two back windows creates another, sometimes very significant blind spot which makes the interior mirror even less effective than in ‘5’, above. Yet again the view directly to the rear through the exterior mirrors becomes even more important.
This photograph shows the view through a convex mirror (i.e. wide-angle to the left of the feint, dotted line) but it also shows that the motorcyclist nearest the car, would actually be in a new and deadly blind spot if the mirror had been angled “wide” — see the diagrams, above. Photo courtesy of Volvo, one of the first car makers to fit blind spot warning devices. Such systems, as they become more commonplace, will create yet another point in the argument that setting exterior mirrors wide is ill-advised and unnecessary.
7. If a relatively tall vehicle, such as a mini van, a big pick-up or an SUV is being followed by a low car, such as a sports car, the low car may be completely hidden, below the view line of the bigger vehicle’s interior mirror, due to tailgate or back window height, but traditionally angled exterior mirrors will give a glimpse of a low vehicle each time it strays out from being directly behind the larger vehicle.
8. The most obvious problem of all relates to reversing. Of course a driver must look over his/her shoulder(s) when doing this, but mirrors are usually essential, too — especially in larger vehicles, such as SUVs and vans — so if, for example, a driver is backing into or out of a parking space near a busy mall, how is he/she to clearly see a pedestrian who walks into the much enlarged blind spots (illustration: Car Two, above) that the ‘wide’ method creates? It cannot be a case of leaning the head to one side to see out of an exterior mirror because that automatically puts the other two mirrors out of alignment while this is happening and two thirds of the available mirror view is therefore lost. The only wise method of setting the mirrors so that reversing is always as safe as possible is the traditional method, never the new, ‘wide’ method.
[Please remember, when reversing/backing it is essential to continually check all around — forwards, behind, over both shoulders and in all appropriate mirrors. Reverse slowly so that you have time to do this.]
9. The photograph above shows yet another situation where setting the exterior mirrors “wide” would affect safety: Stickers significantly blocking the view through the rearview mirror
There is a simple, sensible rule about vehicle windows that unthinking people often forget about, and that is: “Keep all windows clean and clear.”
Putting stickers on any window in a car, in a position where they can interfere with a driver’s view, either when looking directly through the window or when looking through the interior mirror, is thoughtless and — frankly — stupid. It is in the same category as dangling anything from the interior mirror.
There is no good excuse for doing these things and good safety reasons not to do them.
To counter the inevitable criticism of our opinion we will ask a question. We wonder (for example) how many motorcyclists, bicyclists or pedestrians have died around the world because a sticker or something hanging from an interior mirror have momentarily hidden their presence when a driver briefly glanced for a view? — If anyone even remotely thinks the answer might be “none” then sadly you are very much mistaken.
10. Another aspect that comes into this argument is tinted windows. Particularly at dusk or dawn, or during other periods of poor light, a tinted rear window will significantly reduce the efficacy of the interior mirror. But as the glass in the windshield and the front side windows may not be heavily tinted, the exterior mirrors will not be impaired by tinted glass — yet another reason to keep them in the traditional position to allow some rearward view at all times. Self-dimming mirrors can at times cause similar problems.
With the exception of physically disadvantaged people, as mentioned earlier in this article, why should glancing over one’s shoulder even be seen as a tiresome chore? Pilots in busy flight areas do it constantly and there is no good or valid reason why drivers should not do likewise on busy roads. Obviously, it would be a foolish person who looked over his/her shoulder for too long, or who did it at an inopportune moment, but that is not what is under discussion.
Setting the exterior mirrors of a car by traditional, ‘close’ guidelines is much safer and facilitates a better overall rearward view than does the modern idea of setting the exterior mirrors ‘wide’.
The writer of this article had the good fortune to be trained as an ‘advanced driver’ and an ‘advanced motorcyclist’ as part of becoming a traffic patrol police officer in Britain. Learning to the UK ‘police advanced’ standard is an acutely intensive process which involves several hundred hours of training on public roads, among ordinary traffic, often at speeds significantly in excess of 100mph. It is said by many to be the highest level of public road driver training available anywhere in the world.
While serving as a traffic patrol officer he specialised in road safety for young drivers and riders, and after leaving the force became a qualified (DfT-ADI) driving instructor.
He was later invited to become the managing director of a UK advanced driver training company which was established to make training available to ordinary people to take them to the same extremely high standards of driving as British police ‘traffic’ officers (except for the extreme-speed element). During the same period, he became a donor organ transportation driver, often operating at remarkably high speeds where, of course, safety was paramount for all the usual reasons plus one extra.
He now lives in the USA where he founded Drive and Stay Alive, Inc., in order to help bring the safety message to as many drivers as possible — especially those most at risk, young drivers under the age of 25. He is now the CEO & Chief Instructor for Advanced Drivers of North America, Inc., and has instructed thousands of drivers in both defensive and advanced driving in more than 40 American States and in 6 Canadian provinces.
While doing the very involved job of building a replacement website for Advanced Drivers of North America, Inc., I’ve had to give myself a break and have a couple of minutes of fun.
I took this photograph (which is unaltered) while I had a couple of my other instructors with me in Malibu, California, a couple of years ago. (We get sent to some truly terrible places to do our work! 😀 )
Anyway, while hands-free cyclists might not be as rare as they should be (often messing with cell-phones and other gadgets), I think the headless pedestrians will — hopefully — be a less-common hazard!
We also have a new website in the process of development, naturally at the same URL, but as we carry a lot of online information not just for clients but to help all drivers be safer, this really is a work-in-progress and will take some time.
Please feel free to tell us of any errors or omissions you might find. It would be both helpful and appreciated.