Traffic Rotaries

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 Vacation)

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, really."

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 traffic phenomena:

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 that."

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 things up.

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 says this:

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 exit."

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 realize that.

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 problem."

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.