Stoplights: The Hidden Costs - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Stoplights: The Hidden Costs

Stoplights: The Hidden Costs

By Tracy Moran


Because you’ll never tire of going in circles.

By Tracy Moran

Rolling through the Virginia countryside, I was shocked when Google Maps told me to take the second exit at an upcoming traffic circle. “A roundabout!” I thought, hitting the pedal so I could see the doughnut-shaped intersection I love even sooner. 

But then came trouble: Another driver, clearly just as keen as I was to see the roundabout, raced to join me in it from another direction, failing to observe the rules of the road — I was there first — and lurched into the circle. I slammed on my brakes, and when he realized his mistake, he sheepishly waved, grinned and drove off. “Bloody American!” I muttered. Which was pretty mild, considering that in England or France he would have been exchanging insurance numbers or crawling out of a flipped automobile.

There are many intersections near my home where pre-roundabout we would sit for 30 to 45 minutes.

Cathy Nickels-Herndon, a driver in Indiana

Since my return to the good ole USA two months ago from England, where I’ve spent 11 of the past 15 years, I’ve often felt like a dislocated American, and I’ve used the ample time I spend stalled at stoplights to reflect on the ridiculousness of America’s traffic systems. There are 10 traffic lights between my home and the nearest grocery store, and they turn a trip of 1.5 miles into a 20-minute ordeal. With each passing month, I’ll grow more accustomed to this time-wasting, like the rest of America. But I’ll always know that roundabouts rule and traffic lights bite, and it’s high time America dimmed the lights and started thinking and driving more geometrically.

France leads the world in circular road crossings with roughly 30,000 roundabouts, compared to the U.K.’s 26,000. But the U.S., according to Daniel Shihundu of Transoft Solutions, a British Columbia-based infrastructural software designer, has just 3,000 “modern” roundabouts. In relative terms, the difference is even more striking: The U.K. has one roundabout every 3.6 square miles; France, one per every 8.3 square miles. The U.S. has one meager roundabout for every 1,300 square miles.  

Shutterstock 213445696

Roundabouts rule. Traffic lights bite. 

Source Shutterstock

Giving circular intersections the green light would boost safety. “All of these intersection and interchange geometrics have demonstrated great potential for reducing crashes,” Shihundu says. He points to a Federal Highway Administration evaluation of nine restricted-crossing U-turn intersections in Maryland that showed a before-and-after crash reduction of 46 percent, and a 70 percent drop in fatal crashes by way of proof. Roundabouts also save time — an immeasurable value to traffic-weary drivers — and they’re cheaper and easier to build. Missouri’s Department of Transportation, that same evaluation showed, found that employing a roundabout over a single-point interchange reduced construction time and costs by more than half, not to mention the fuel savings and positive environmental impact.


Cathy Nickels-Herndon, a resident of the Carmel, Indiana, area, which boasts 94 roundabouts — more than anywhere else in the U.S. — can attest to their positive impact. “There are many intersections near my home where pre-roundabout we would sit for 30 to 45 minutes,” she says. Now she spends about five to 10 minutes at intersections that would have taken at least a half-hour before. 

But these internationally loved intersections have one major drawback: American drivers often don’t understand how to use them. “Traffic circles are OK, in theory. But as long as you have selfish people, I feel safer with a four- or all-way stop,” says Eddie Star, a Spokane-based financial consultant. He blames the “me, me, me” attitude of too many drivers who often fail to give way to emergency crews, much less obey roundabout rules. And I admit I was annoyed by the foolish pedal pusher who ruined my roundabout reunion in Virginia. But if Sweden can switch from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right in one day (back in 1967) with fewer than 200 accidents, then surely a well-coordinated public awareness campaign could set American drivers straight. Or, in this case, around.

America, in fact, is already slowly catching on to what many Europeans have long enjoyed: roundabout supremacy. Shihundu says his firm is “seeing a surge of roundabout design in North America and in particular in the United States.” Transoft’s TORUS Roundabouts software, he says, is already being used by more than 12 U.S. DOTs, many American cities and some engineering consultants.

So if you’re ready to drive in circles and get there faster, write to your city planners today and demand that they shape up.

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