Guest Commentary

Dreaming of a United States with roundabouts aplenty and fewer red lights

Some of the blocks around my house have those cute little traffic circles in the intersections, with native plants and folk art in the middle. They slow traffic and beautify the neighborhood--and one day, they cost me $400.

I treat these circles as roundabouts, which is what they ought to be. The desired traffic-control dynamic is inherent in their function. Upon approach, you must slow down, look carefully past the sculptures and vegetation, and yield or stop, depending on the presence of other traffic. Cautiously negotiating your way around the circle and through the intersection is a natural reaction--a stop sign is utterly superfluous.

A recent article in The Atlantic compared traffic control in the United States with that of Great Britain. Over there, stop signs and red lights are far less common, while yields and roundabouts rule. Here in the prophylactic provinces, there's a thicket of signs and lights nagging you at every turn. The article laid out statistics showing that the British strategy significantly improves safety.

The author, a Duke University psychology professor, concluded that U.S. drivers are in effect being trained to drive according to signs rather than conditions, whereas British drivers, out of necessity, pay more attention to what's going on. With a right of way, you always have to judge the situation before proceeding. The responsibility to determine if it's OK to slide on through rests with the driver, not some sign.

One look at Officer Unfriendly's face on the day in question told me that this was not the U.K., and it was not OK to slide through stop signs.

My subsequent visit to traffic school offered an interesting corollary to the professor's conclusion. The room was full of pissed-off people who had been nabbed by automated cameras while running red lights. Several of them argued vigorously with the instructor, niggling over tenths of a second and the placement of cameras and painted lines.

The instructor--I'll call him Sgt. Doug--was a compact, powerful man of military bearing. He exhibited the sort of skill at psychological manipulation that comes with Special Forces training, and he generally did a masterful job of handling the class. However, despite patiently and earnestly pointing out several times that Arizona leads the nation in red-light-running fatalities, and that the issue was really human lives, people couldn't get past their own narrow, selfish viewpoints and see it his way.

The most recalcitrant offender was a crusty old math teacher with fire-goggle glasses, monkey-shit-brown polyester pants and a raft of pens in his shirt pocket. Armed with a sheaf of papers containing the photos and formulas that proved his innocence, he clung bitterly to his precious measurements and expert analysis of the engineering failures that had led to his unjust apprehension. The more Pocket Protector Man stubbornly refused to accept responsibility, the more it bugged me. Finally, I piped up that I almost became one of those red-light fatalities years ago, and I agreed that the point is corpses, not fines or a lost Saturday.

Suddenly, Pocket Protector Man was way into my personal space, standing over me and shoving his theorems under my nose. I resisted the urge to apply an unorthodox Heimlich maneuver to his concave plexus, but I did toss his misguided thesis on the floor, calmly asserting, "I don't care about your papers." This triggered a dangerously deep-seated reaction in Sgt. Doug, who moved down the aisle like a Green Beret who had just spied a couple of skinny commies. The two of us were threatened with ejection, and Pocket Protector Man was told to stay after class.

A few days later, I tried to contact Sgt. Doug. I wanted to tell him that I was impressed with his performance and ask him if he ever got through to Pocket Protector Man. I wondered whether he thought Americans could ever be mature and responsible enough to make the British way work here. And I wanted him to know that my red-light anecdote was about a younger, stupider iteration of me that had almost crashed into somebody in his haste to arrive a little bit less tardy to work. Alas, he never called me back.

I don't run red lights like I did 15 years ago--one near-statistical experience was enough for me. But darned if those traffic circles don't still look like roundabouts ...

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