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Traffic roundabouts: Confusing or efficient?

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Monday, February 24, 2014, 9:23 AM

Call them roundabouts, traffic circles, rotary intersections or one-way circular intersections – they attract a great deal of debate and study around the world.

Roundabouts have been in use since the late 1800s, most commonly associated with the famous traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. That example is 8 lanes wide and combines traffic from 13 different streets.

In North America, mention a traffic circle or traffic roundabout and people will usually make a face, then comment about how much they dislike them.

Despite the unfamiliarity and opposition, roundabouts are one of the most efficient, safest and cost effective ways of controlling an intersection ever invented.

Traffic circles provide the following benefits:

  • Reduce serious collisions – with all traffic flowing into and out of the intersection in the same direction, you reduce t-bone and head-on collisions which are the most likely to cause serious injury.
  • Eliminate the left turn – In a traditional intersection, the left turn is the most dangerous interaction. Each lane a vehicle must cross to make a left increases the likelihood of a fatal collision exponentially.
  • Improve flow – they are self-regulating, you don’t have to worry about a street with variable volume during the day getting backed up because of poor light timing.
  • Do not require electricity – traffic circles work even during a power outage.
  • Cost less – a typical light controlled intersection requires running in electricity, overhead lights, and control systems – all very expensive and require ongoing maintenance.
  • Better for the environment – you never have to worry about sitting at a red light with your vehicle pumping out emissions - they even save you money as a driver!

Despite these obvious and well proven benefits the opposition in some communities to traffic circles is incredible. The most often cited reason being 'they are confusing.'

Traffic circles certainly are a change from the usual and do require drivers to follow a few simple rules.

  • Traffic flow around the circle is counter clockwise.
  • Traffic entering the circle must slow down (stopping is not required unless there is a stop sign) and give right of way to vehicles already in the circle.
  • Drivers must use their turn signals to indicate when they are entering and exiting the circle.

Studies have shown a majority of people in a given area were opposed to them before being installed and surprisingly an even greater majority approve of them after they have been implemented.

It does take a moment to get used to, especially when a driver has spent a life time of being told when to go and when to stop by traffic lights.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

  • Traffic circles also let you reverse course 180 degrees legally – a nice feature if you've passed your street or need to park on the opposite side of the road further back.

Distractions? – You really must pay attention to your driving. If you prefer to mindlessly drive along and be instructed on when to stop and go, then traffic lights will seem much more attractive.

There are more and more roundabouts popping up throughout Canada and the US – over 30,000 installed in North America in the last 30 years, especially popular in new subdivisions. The benefits of improved traffic flow, safety and reduced cost and emissions are remarkable.

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