by Tracy Hampton
So you're driving around the Cape. You come to a rotary, or as some
people say, a roundabout, and how do you react? Do you have an anxiety
attack because you don't know who's coming and going, when
you should enter and how you should exit?
To begin any story on rotaries, it's only fitting to play the well-known
scene from National Lampoon's European Vacation, where
the Griswald family's stuck in a traffic rotary in London.
( audio excerpt from National Lampoon's European
I didn't have to go far to find someone who's experienced a
similar situation here on the Cape. Tony Brown, the manager of the
Wendy's Restaurant located on the airport rotary in Hyannis,
reminisced about the first time he drove up to that rotary.
Tony Brown: "I was totally confused at what am I
'posed to do here. Am I 'posed to go this way? 'Cause
when I was trying to find which way to go, I got lost. I kept going in a circle.
I think it's very unorganized because a thing like that can really cause
a lot of accidents because nobody really cooperates. A person going in
wants to go in and nobody lets them in. It's very dangerous,
As aggravating as rotaries may be, traffic experts love them. I rounded up
a few of these folks to find out why. First, Officer Daniel Parkka of the
Barnstable police traffic division. Here's his perception of these
Daniel Parkka: "Roundabouts and rotaries?
They're zipping in, riding on the bumper, and then sling-shotting off.
It's dangerous but it works."
So it's like your car's in a sling shot. That's not a very
comforting image. But transportation researchers insist rotaries are very
safe, and they'd like to have lots more put in across the country. Per
Garder studies roundabouts and rotaries in Europe and the U.S., and
he's currently an engineer at the University of Maine.
Per Garder: "Definitely safer than two-way stop or traffic
signals. According to our research, there is no doubt that a roundabout is
much safer than a traffic signal. Most lay people do not believe
Well, so-called "lay people" are the ones actually driving in the
rotaries. But he's right, rotaries are safer than traffic lights or stop
signs. They force people to drive slowly, and it's just about
impossible to have a head on collision. A recent study looked at
twenty-four intersections in the U.S. where stop signs or traffic signals
were converted to rotaries. At these intersections, there was a 38%
reduction in total car collisions and a 76% reduction in car collisions
that involved injuries. So, OK, maybe they are safer.
Now let's move on to talk about how to safely and sanely drive
through a rotary. Typically, for people who know where they're going,
it's not a big deal. But for those who don't, there could be
trouble. Officer Parkka says these folks are the ones that usually bottle
Daniel Parkka: "They see the rotary and they go,
"what do I do here? ". They're pointing at signs and
looking at road maps, and they're confused. And people don't
anticipate you to be stopping. They want you to keep moving. They think,
get on the rotary, get off. "
So whatever you do, try not to stop. If you do, the drivers around you
won't be pleased. Richard Retting is the senior transportation
engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Virginia.
He's obviously familiar with our driving mentality.
Richard Retting: "Exercise caution and good driving
manners at roundabouts. You see somebody wants to get over to the
right, by gosh, let them get over. We often get caught up in a driving
psychology where nobody wants to tap their brakes and yield for a second
to another motorist."
So another rule be aware of the cars around you and know when to yield.
When you initially approach a rotary, yield to drivers in the circle, and
merge in. Then, get over to the far left and travel around the inside of the
circle until you see your exit. When you see where you want to get off,
merge to the outside and sling shot out. If you screw it up, Officer Parkka
Daniel Parkka: "If you miss your exit or aren't sure,
what you should do is continue right around the rotary again. It's
going to take 20 seconds out of your day to go around again and find the
If you're like Clark Griswald and you can't get to the outside lane
to exit the rotary, Parkka has this advice:
Daniel Parkka: "You flow with the traffic and you look to
the right. You don't have to look to the left because you're
already on the inside. Look over, move over to the outside and exit.
Whether or not you're an expert at travelling through rotaries, Garder
admits part of the reason why they're so well-liked among traffic
safety officials is the simple fact that drivers inherently fear them.
Per Garder: "In a way, I think roundabouts do feel like
they are a challenge. That may be a reason why there are few crashes.
Because if we feel that we have to be alert, we are prepared when we
enter a situation that we have to put some effort into it."
Nothing like a little stress to keep you on your toes. Garder offers another
interesting twist. He says rotaries force people to slow down, and when
that happens, we somehow become more human.
Per Garder: "If we're driving really fast, we become
anonymous to one another. We don't care about social behavior,
and when we slow down, we can see each other's faces. We start
behaving in a more civilized way. "
Most people probably wouldn't describe a rotary as a place where
drivers behave in a civilized manner. But it might be comforting for them to
know that rotaries create fewer traffic delays at intersections because, in
theory, drivers don?t have to stop. Officer Parkka wishes drivers would
Daniel Parkka: "If you look at the airport rotary, people
scream that it's gridlocked, which I've seen it. The reasons shy
it's gridlocked is not the rotary itself, but the extensions off the rotary
where traffic is backed up at a traffic light and that backup leads into the
rotary. So it's not the rotary itself that causes the
And now to end this story, one final, succinct note from Retting.
Richard Retting: "The driver in the circle has the right of
way, and while they have the right of way also have to be looking out for
drivers entering. Because the right of way is the right of way but it
doesn't mean that nobody will enter against the rules of the road.
Traffic experts may have their opponents, but they're eagerly pushing
ahead to build more rotaries in the U.S. to catch up to the numbers found
in Europe. That could be a tall order, since engineers are building
upwards of 1500 new rotaries a year in France alone.
Tracy Hampton is a reporter for WCAI-WNAN.