Vicious Circles

When I was ten years old, the progressive rock band “Yes” released an unforgettable song called “Roundabout”. The lyrics included trippy phrases like, “… mountains come out of the sky and they stand there…”, and, “… go closer hold the land feel partly no more than grains of sand…” The words made no sense but the melody hooked me with its driving beat and wandering synthesizer. “Roundabout” and “Stairway to Heaven” – both released in 1971 – are perfect examples of my rock music baptism.

Turns out, “Roundabout” was not a metaphor for the song’s underlying message nor even a made-up word. The lyrics really were spawned from an overdose of traffic circles. Yes was on tour and traveling from Aberdeen to Glasgow when its lead singer Jon Anderson says their van passed through “maybe 40 or so” roundabouts. Anderson promptly teamed up with guitarist Steve Howe to produce one of Yes’s biggest hits.  Wikipedia dedicates an entire article to “Roundabout” here.

A “roundabout” (in the UK, of course)

Fifty years forward, roundabouts are more prevalent than ever on our city streets – and in some setups, as mind-boggling to navigate as a Yessong lyric. In a neighborhood near my house, I pass through three consecutive roundabouts to get to a friend’s house.  Each has two lanes entering and exiting the circle from four directions.  If I’m not conscious of the lane I’m in when I enter a circle, I’ll find myself going round and round before I remember it’s safe to exit from both lanes.  If I lose track of which circle I’m in (all three look entirely alike), I’ll exit onto a street nowhere near my friend’s house.

A “rotary”

You’d think we’d have them figured out by now since roundabouts first appeared in 1966 and have proliferated ever since.  (By definition, we’re talking about circles tight enough to induce centrifugal force, not the more leisurely curves of an urban “rotary”.)  The Wall Street Journal reports traffic authorities still toy with public awareness campaigns, signage, and modified roadway designs in an almost desperate effort to reduce roundabout fender-benders.

Here are two lingering oversights with the rules of roundabouts.  First, drivers entering the circle sometimes assume they have the right-of-way over drivers already in the circle.  Second, drivers approaching a two-lane roundabout don’t check signage to see whether one or both lanes also exit the roundabout.  On the latter problem, I admit to several instances where I had to quickly change lanes while circling, just to exit where I needed to.  Changing lanes in a roundabout ranks among the scariest driving maneuvers of them all.

Not in this lifetime

Roundabouts really do make a lot of sense, even if drivers never, ever figure them out.  They eliminate electronic signal systems or stop signs.  They create a safer environment for pedestrians (who only have to look one direction for oncoming traffic instead of three).  They force vehicles to slow down, and statistics show a dramatic reduction in the number of T-bone and head-on collisions.  Finally, roundabouts require less asphalt to create a new intersection, and are sometimes enhanced with an eye-pleasing landscaped island in the center.

Look closely and you’ll see (all four) Bristol Circles

The first time I ever drove in circles was in West Los Angeles.  A street known as “Bristol Avenue” earned the nickname “Bristol Circles” by teenage drivers in the neighborhood.  That’s because Bristol’s four rotaries allowed for a lively game of “car tag”, where my friends and I would zoom around trying to “tag” each other with the headlights of our cars.  If we were really daring (i.e stupid), we included the topmost of Bristol’s four circles, which is bisected by busy, unpredictable Sunset Blvd.

Cities in the northeastern states of the U.S. have some pretty good-sized rotaries these days but for the really daring, it’s hard to beat the giant urban circles in France or the tighter many-tentacled roundabouts in the UK.  Paris’s Arc de Triomphe rotary may deserve the title “most vicious circle”.  Watch the following video and see if you don’t agree.  This rotary may be the genesis of the term “distracted driving”.  Note to viewer: no lanes.  Note to self: no thanks.

Some content sourced from the 3/14/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Car Crash Mystery: Why Can’t Drivers Figure Out Roundabouts?” and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

You Can’t Walk and Chew Gum

In the local news this week, we learned Amy Wilson and her newborn – residents of our fair city – are in critical condition in a Salt Lake City hospital as victims of a head-on collision. Wilson and her newborn suffer brain injuries as they struggle to survive, while two of three teenagers from the at-fault car are dead. The heartbreaking interview with Wilson’s husband here in Colorado included loss of words as he tried to reconcile the happiness of a birth with the tragedy of the accident.

My reaction to this story – besides donating to the “Amy and Baby Wilson Support” GoFundMe campaign – was the teenagers must have been texting at the wheel.  I wonder if they even left skid marks.  Prayers be with them, Amy Wilson and her newborn will survive and their injuries will be short-lived.  But the same cannot be said for the kids in the other car.  As it turns out they were street-racing when they jumped the median.  They might as well have been texting.

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The victims on both sides of this accident will join the rising morbid statistics tied to “distracted driving”, which includes use of smartphones. We just can’t put them down, even with risk of life staring us in the face.  By no coincidence, the Wall Street Journal published an article this week about rising insurance rates tied to use of smartphones while driving.  36% of State Farm customers admitted to texting while driving, up 5% from five years earlier.  20% admitted to taking a photo while driving; another 10% take videos.  In those same five years smartphone ownership among drivers increased from 50% to 90%.

I will never understand the urgency to check a text while driving.   Apparently I’m not as addicted as most.  If I’m “late” in responding to a message, I can’t think of a better excuse than “I was behind the wheel”. When my phone rings or a text message dings, I will find a safe place to pull over if I can.  More often I’m not going to answer until I get where I’m going.

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Perhaps I’m more motivated than most, because my son caused a distracted driving accident several years ago in high school.  As he fiddled with the car stereo leaving campus, he braked too late when he saw the red light in front of him, causing a chain-reaction fender-bender involving five cars.  Thankfully no one was hurt, but even at school-zone speeds my son caused a lot of damage.  Because of that incident I chastise my children any time I receive a text from them and realize they are driving.

Technology is trying to improve things, of course.  Voice-activated control is a lot better than it was just a few years ago.  But we’re not there yet.  Until it is commonplace to conduct a stream of communication from start to finish hands-free, the senseless accidents – and the insurance rates – will continue to rise.  Even if you perfect the technology, you still have the distraction.

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Sure, you can walk and chew gum at the same time, but not so texting and driving.  I looked at the photo above and thought, “what if you saw that through the windshield of the car coming towards you?”

The next time you’re on the road and you get that familiar ding, just keep going where you’re going.  No matter the message, it’s infinitely less important than the safety of those around you.