Driving around Brittany and Normandy in France last week my wife and I fell in love – not only with the food, the booze, the sights and the French temperament, which can be as crabby as the weather. But with roundabouts.
You heard right: Those bewildering little circles at intersections that make red lights unnecessary, and that say so much about a particular form of European practicality that we could learn something from them. In about 500 miles of driving over seven days we must have encountered fewer red lights than I did the day after I returned, driving six miles in Palm Coast.
On that paved equivalent of Chinese torture we not only get the pleasure of an unsynchronized red light with every breath, but we also have a firing squad of the city’s red-light spy cams. Palm Coast is among the 75-odd local governments in Florida that have installed traffic cameras to cash in (from citizens’ checking accounts), on the dubious claim that they make intersections safer.
All that would be unnecessary if we had roundabouts. They make more sense in every way imaginable. Let’s count the ways.
• Roundabouts save time. According to Tom Vanderbilt’s nimble Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (Knopf, 2008), they can reduce delays by as much as 65 percent. While it’s true that on a green light you can zip through, half the time it’s red. And even on green, you have to wait till pokers ahead are done texting and accelerate through the intersection. It all devours time. There’s also dead time when signals in all directions are red to clear the intersection.
With a well-designed roundabout, you usually slow down on the approach but rarely have to stop. Compare that to the 10 minutes or so you waste every day just idling at red lights. That’s the equivalent of about 40 hours a year you could be spending vacationing in France.
• Roundabouts save gas. All that time idling burns gas and money. And the least efficient part of a car’s gas-burning is during the acceleration phase, which red lights trigger every time. Auto fuel is the biggest chunk of our foreign-oil dependence, but we could probably eliminate our entire dependence on one of those OPEC countries’ oil if we went roundabout.
• Most importantly, roundabouts are immeasurably safer than traffic lights. Experts say four-way intersections have no fewer than 56 points of what road engineers call potential conflicts, where crashes can occur, 32 of them where cars can hit each other and 24 where cars can hit pedestrians. Roundabouts reduce that total number of conflicts to 16. According to a 2001 study in the American Journal of Public Health of U.S. intersections converted to roundabouts, they reduce crashes nearly by half, injuries by 76 percent and fatalities by 90 percent. If Florida cities want their intersections safer, they should quit installing spy cameras and build roundabouts instead.
Our image of roundabouts is stuck on that scene from National Lampoon’s European Vacation, where the Griswolds are stuck in a traffic circle for hours, incapable of getting out. It conveys the image of the stupid American who can’t navigate a slightly more demanding traffic maneuver. I don’t buy it. It’s not for show that a few new developments in Florida are installing roundabouts.
The stupidity is to stick with what doesn’t work, what wastes time and gas and what injures and kills. That’s red lights. Of course, cities and counties would then lose their spy cams and all the cash they make on terrorizing drivers. When members of local government councils are Griswolds, we’re bound to keep idling at red lights.