Red light, green light
In defense of one of the U.K.'s great contributions: the roundabout

Red light, green light

It would be nice if Camino del Rio, as the Spanish name suggests, was only a quaint path along the river. If I take the time to park and walk down to the river, a paved path exists there, which fits well with my imagined version. Some drivers imagine differently, especially if they’re in a hurry along this crosstown highway that for them might as well be called Camino del Hora Punta, Camino del Comercio or even Camino del Locos. 

Last month while I drove to a doctor appointment, the stoplight at the intersection at Santa Rita Park suddenly changed from green to yellow. I pumped the brake and came to a hard stop as the light turned red, with only a brief sense of relief. Suddenly, an enormous pickup spewing a black diesel cloaking device roared past me, as if I was standing still, which I was. Surely every licensed motorist knows red means stop, green means go, and  yellow means be prepared to stop, except for this driver who obviously heard that yellow means stomp on the accelerator and go like hell! 

Later, at the clinic as the cuff came off my arm the doctor said, “Your blood pressure is slightly elevated.” I described my traffic encounter, and she said, “Perhaps that explains it,” but I could tell she had doubts. She is, after all, in the examiner’s seat, and I’m the one who drove this organic jalopy into her garage. Mushy brakes and a noisy muffler aren’t the only challenges I face as my body’s odometer records its miles. 

Things could be worse. One firm of personal injury lawyers estimates 165,000 accidents occur annually at intersections caused by red-light runners. Fatalities run from 700-800 a year, and a quarter of all traffic deaths, including about half of all injuries, happen at intersections. Camino del Splat. 

A minister named Robert Fulghum attempted to simplify the way we think about life’s worries by writing “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It appeared in 1986, and though widely published and often cited, its critical reception was less than stellar. Its 50 essays were considered trite and sentimental. 

Maybe the author’s philosophy might have more impact if tweaked by someone with my recent experience. Starting with the title, I’d call it “All I Need to Know About Driving I Learned in Kindergarten.” A revised table of contents might read like this:

1) “Share everything”... especially the road, because bicycles and pedestrians don’t come equipped with airbags.

2) “Play fair”... but remember that driving is not a game. 

3)  “Don’t hit people”... because you’re in control of a 2-ton bullet. 

4) “Put things back where you found them”... but not while you’re driving.

5) “Clean up your own mess”... before you start the engine, especially if the accumulation of crap on your dashboard and on the floor around your feet interferes with your ability to drive safely. 

6) “Don’t take things that aren’t yours”... like liberties, specifically those prohibited by the operational motor vehicle regulations.

7) “Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody”... especially if your license has been revoked, your insurance has expired or your registration tags indicate you’ve always had trouble with deadlines. And don’t leave the scene. 

8) “Wash your hands before you eat”... but don’t eat while you’re driving.

9) “Flush”... which sounds unambiguously clear to me.

10) “Take a nap every afternoon” ... especially if you drink your lunch.

There. I’ve calmed down and in a roundabout way, I’ve also ended up saying something quite simple: intersections are dangerous. Be careful. 

I spent the entire month of September in the UK and never drove anywhere. The idea of meeting vehicles on the wrong side of the road, especially at intersections, moving in a counterclockwise continuous circular flow looked downright scary, at least to me, but the natives appear to know what they are doing, which is why I walked or left the driving to them while visiting. 

Having been raised on the intersection model, it’s natural to feel more comfortable obeying signal lights. But roundabouts actually reduce stop-and-go traffic, eliminate crossover traffic (where motorists turn in front of you), and eliminate the necessity of slamming on your brakes if the silly light decides to change. Even during rush-hour when roundabout traffic becomes congested, it may slow you down but is less likely to kill you.  

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the safety benefits of roundabouts result in a 35 percent reduction of overall intersection crashes, a 90 percent reduction of fatal accidents and a 76 percent decrease of overall intersection accident injuries per year. 

Statistics like these justify such a prominent experiment in Durango with “traffic calming devices” such as roundabouts implemented near Mercy Hospital, where blood pressure can become elevated as something simple occurs, like when a doctor walks into an examination room.

– David Feela

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