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Don’t hate, navigate

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff writer

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Two weeks ago we reported GDOT’s plan to build two roundabouts on Highway 136 – one at the Hwy.136 Connector intersection and the other just a couple miles down the road at the Ellijay Rd./Hwy. 136 intersection. 

GDOT provided numbers that demonstrate roundabouts drastically improve safety by reducing the frequency and severity of crashes. 

“You can’t argue with worldwide statistics,” GDOT State Maintenance liaison Sam Wheeler told me.

Apparently that’s not correct, Mr. Wheeler, because plenty of people argue with the statistics, ignore them, or don’t realize they exist. We put the roundabout article on our website and posted it to social media, and I was surprised (and amused) by the  downright hostility people have for inanimate and seemingly benign roundabouts. Here are a few comments made on the Facebook post.  

“A Round-A-Bout so bad, bad, bad, anywhere. Dangerous.”

  “What a nightmare this is going to be! Not to mention the construction. This is not the answer.”

“Such bu%[email protected]

Uh???? Those are some strong opinions for a traffic solution that’s always seemed low key, low speed, and fun for its sheer novel factor. Feeling confused, I surveyed my brother-in-law’s business to see if the aggression extended beyond our Facebook post. Without needing time to think, every person but one said they “hate them” - not  just that they didn’t like them, they hated them. A Google search returned several articles titled similarly to a City Lab’s “Why Americans Hate Roundabouts,” which solidified my new suspicion the repugnance is widespread.  

John Metclaf, author of the City Lab article, writes, “As beacons of unfamiliarity, the roughly 3,700 circular traffic intersections in the U.S. are feared, avoided, and even loathed, often without good reason. It seems that every time traffic engineers propose to build a new one, there is protest and uproar.”

This holds true for the only roundabout in Pickens County at the intersection of Cove Road and Steve Tate Highway, as well as the one in Ellijay, which was hotly protested initially, but welcomed when residents realized how quickly traffic could move around downtown (barring heavy traffic times such as morning school traffic and the Apple Festival).

In a Priceonomics article “The Case for More Traffic Roundabouts,” the difficulty one American engineer had selling the U.S. on the concept is discussed. 

“We are trying to bring the British-style roundabout to the western hemisphere,” the U.S. engineer wrote in a 1984 letter to the  creator of the modern roundabout. “The fighting is tough, the slogging is slow, and the resistance is stiff.”

But the article goes on to cite more of those “worldwide statistics” that show how much safer roundabouts are than four-way intersections, reducing fatality/injury crashes by nearly 80 percent. They also reduce emissions and improve traffic flow and efficiency. 

Roundabouts have gained popularity in the states, but the U.S. is still squeamish when compared to other countries. According to analysis by geospatial designer Damien Saunder, there is one roundabout for every 1,118 intersections in the U.S. compared to one per 127 intersections in Great Britain and one per 45 in France. 

A traffic expert told Priceonomics “Americans in general dislike ambiguity in traffic; we like wide roads with clearly demarcated lanes. [Roundabouts] seem more dangerous because they demand more cognitive bandwidth, but we can only appreciate the safety statistics when we step back and think.”

Sounds right to me. From my limited survey people hate roundabouts because “they’re confusing and nobody knows how to use them.” Maybe they have visions of National Lampoon’s European Vacation where Clark Griswold and his family get stuck on one in London for hours? Good for us, American roundabouts are usually simpler than their multi-laned European counterparts and only have one rule - traffic getting into the circle yields to traffic already in the circle. 

Just because we’re not accustomed to roundabouts doesn’t mean they don’t work. It might take a few go rounds, but the benefits of this traffic solution far outweigh the learning curve.