Lorraine Explains: Wanna save lives? Embrace roundabouts

With political will, we could see astonishing safety gains using this elegant intersection

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Not to alarm you, but: you’re probably roundabout-ing all wrong. Maybe they freak you out a little, maybe you experience them infrequently enough to really get the hang of it, but I’m about to give you advice from an actual Roundabout Specialist — an engineer who specializes in roundabout design.

Call him biased, but he’s right: roundabouts really should be more ubiquitous, for many reasons.

Though Canada now has between 300 and 400 roundabouts, my introduction to them happened half a world away when I was a kid. Trapped in the backseat of a tiny rental car with my two sisters, we watched in terror as my father got stuck in a swirling sea of traffic in London, England.

Picture a jet-lagged man about to spend two weeks with his wife’s “nattering family” (his words) piloting a standard transmission car with the steering wheel on the right, the gear shifter on the left and all the traffic going the wrong way. Now, enter a multi-lane roundabout crammed with “buses and cabs and idiots” (also his words).

We eventually got out, but it was a very Chevy Chase EuropeanVacation moment. Several of them, in fact. It was also when I learned that the beauty of roundabouts is that you can keep going round… and round… and round. If you miss your exit, no big deal. It’ll be coming right up again. And again.

While the concept of the free-flowing circular intersection is admittedly confusing for the unprepared or unpracticed, it’s a traffic device we would be smart to start allocating more thought and money to. The increased safety statistics alone are staggering: a 76-per-cent reduction in injury-causing crashes when compared to a two-way stop or traffic signal control, according to a 2001 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Turning right on a red light makes things very dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

It shows “reductions of 38 per cent for all crash severities combined and of 76 per cent for all injury crashes. Reductions in the numbers of fatal and incapacitating injury crashes were estimated at about 90 per cent.” Similar studies around the world echo those numbers. If we could control the speed of every intersection, and remove head-on and left-turn crashes, we could eliminate one of the most dangerous problems on our roads.

According to Phil Weber, an engineer and roundabout specialist with CIMA+, we need to do a better job on two fronts: educating the public on those huge safety gains; and educating drivers on how to properly use multi-lane roundabouts.

Our roundabouts are the same as those in the U.S. and the U.K.: an intersection with a central island in the middle. That island usually has banked sides – an apron – that larger trucks frequently need to negotiate their turns in smaller roundabouts.

One of the built-in beauties of roundabouts is how they control speed. Engineers know the fastest path speed – theoretically, the fastest you can go around – can be maintained in the design. When you control the speed, you control the safety. Picture a traditional signaled intersection. Drivers may speed up to make a green, or to jam an amber. You can’t speed into a roundabout. Everybody’s speed is held in check.

“Single-lane roundabouts are easy: slow down, look to your left, wait for a gap, enter and advance to your exit,” says Weber. It’s when you start adding lanes that things can get complicated, but as he explains, with a little practice and some straight-forward direction, it’s easy to get the hang of it.

“A good rule of thumb: for destinations less than halfway around (i.e. a right turn) use the right entry lane; for destinations more than halfway around (i.e. a left turn) use the left entry lane. Usually if you’re going through the intersection you can use either lane, but each intersection may be different so always check the signs so you get in the correct lane.”

The following diagrams show the most common problems drivers have with multi-lane roundabouts, and how to avoid them.

Here, you may be tempted to stick to the outside lane regardless of your exit point. The problem with that is you may be driving into the path of a vehicle exiting the roundabout by going straight through via the inside lane.

You are effectively making a left turn from the right-hand lane, which you wouldn’t do at any other kind of intersection. If this caused a collision, you would be found at fault.

The second diagram highlights the problem with improperly entering the circle.

The outer lane might be clear, but you have no way of knowing if the driver in the inside lane is planning on exiting immediately past you. Don’t merge in beside circulating traffic. Everybody should signal, but failure to yield to traffic already in the circle will leave you at fault.

Lanes should be clearly marked, but it is up to drivers to know which exit they plan to take, and to get themselves into the appropriate lane.

Roundabouts eliminate traffic signals, and having people run advanced arrows in exasperation. It means a current of traffic can safely and effectively move without stacking up at endless lights, meaning a reduction in idling cars. You can do an effective U-turn at any point, and an error simply means waiting for another loop to correct it, not a collision.

If you’re travelling, check ahead of time on traffic patterns in the country you’ll be visiting. Not all traffic circles and roundabouts are the same, and some are downright ornery: check out this video from the famed Arc de Triomphe, where vehicles inside yield to those coming in. That’s a traffic circle, and it’s nuts.

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