April 2014
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Roundaboutaphobia:  The fear of traffic patterns called roundabouts. 

Should we be scared?

Modern roundabouts are ring-shaped intersections through which traffic flows in a counterclockwise pattern. Cars entering a roundabout must yield to those already inside.

The Department of Transportation does not keep statistics on roundabouts, but experts agree that they are proliferating rapidly. They point to Wisconsin, which has built about 100 roundabouts since 2004, and plans to build 52 more in the 2011 construction season alone. Maryland is closing in on 200. Kansas has nearly 100.  All told, there are about 2,000 roundabouts in this country, most built in the last decade, according to Edward Myers, a senior principal at Kittelson & Associates, a transportation engineering and planning firm.

Really, now.  Should we be scared?

Residents of Quentin, Pa., near Harrisburg, were distraught to learn last month that a stoplight intersection in town might be turned into a roundabout. “I just foresee a lot of accidents,” said John Horstick, 61, who owns the Quentin Haus, a nearby restaurant. A petition circulated at the restaurant garnered hundreds of signatures in a matter of days.Kitty Schaeffer, 81, said she was worried about large trucks navigating the circle. “Let’s just have a light there, and when the light changes, you just go,” she said.

But many are being forced to learn how to navigate roundabouts, 25 years after Clark Griswold captured the public’s unease with roundabouts in “European Vacation,” spending a full day circumnavigating London’s famous Lambeth Bridge roundabout — “There’s Big Ben, kids! Parliament!” — unable to escape its inner lane.

Okay, okay.  Just answer the question: should Americans embrace their roundaboutaphobia?

Armed with mounting data showing that roundabouts are safer, cheaper to maintain and friendlier to the environment, transportation experts around the country are persuading communities to replace traditional intersections with them.

Roundabouts are deemed safer than traditional intersections because their design precludes most high-risk situations. “You virtually eliminate right-angle crashes and head-on collisions, and the collisions that do occur tend to be much less severe,” said Anne McCartt, a senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“There’s a lot of what I call irrational opposition,” said Eugene R. Russell Sr., a civil engineering professor at Kansas State University and chairman of a national task force on roundabouts, sounding mildly exasperated in a telephone interview. “People don’t understand. They just don’t understand roundabouts.”

Look.  We’re not really afraid.  There’s a cultural difference, alright?

“Just because something works in one culture, doesn’t mean it’s going to work in another culture,” said Mr. Gernert, who teaches about world cultures at nearby Cedar Crest High School. “In our country, we don’t hang animals in our storefronts like other cultures. Food is different. Transportation, patience, people, their temperaments, are different from country to country.”

Yeah!  Next thing you know, we’ll be hanging pig testicles out front of the Shop n’ Save like they do in those countries that do that.  It’s the same thing about roundabouts.  EXACTLY.

It’s like some pod-people mentality, you know.  Like, once the roundabout is put in place, people just start, you know, ACCEPTING them.

Three years ago, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety published a study titled “Long-Term Trends in Public Opinion Following Construction of Roundabouts.” After interviewing 1,802 drivers in six communities, the researchers reported that, on average, only 34 percent had supported roundabouts in their communities before construction. But shortly after the roundabouts were in place, the number rose to 57 percent. After a year or more, the number increased to 69 percent.

Roundaboutaphobia.  The only thing you have to fear, is fear itself.  And engaging in a new kind of traffic pattern.

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