An Outlook

 Throughout the past year, one of the ongoing topics of conversation in our state has been the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s eagerness to create roundabouts as they upgrade roads and highways. Over the winter Green Bay residents, and particularly business owners, argued and battled over whether to install as many as four roundabouts along a busy business corridor, and similar debates have occurred across Wisconsin.

Roundabouts have been around for a long time:  European cities are filled with them and they are relatively common on America’s east coast. The American Midwest, however, has largely avoided these alternative intersections until now.

Other than a relatively brief stretch where I was a resident of Florida’s Gulf Coast, my entire life has been spent in the Midwest and thus, my experience with roundabouts has been very limited. Interestingly though, my first experience with a roundabout occurred when I was just 18 years-old.

Back in 1976, after my first year in college, I spent the summer working as a handyman at the Anderson Hotel in Ephraim and, at the end of the summer, I drove down to Beloit College to pick-up my girlfriend (who attended summer term at Beloit) and drove her out to South Hadley, Massachusetts for a few weeks before the fall term began.

Massachusetts was a strange place for a Midwestern boy with their Blue Laws and peculiar accents, but it wasn’t until my girlfriend, Janet, and I drove into Boston for the day that I realized how far removed from the familiar I truly was.

Our plan was well thought out and seemingly flawless:  we would drive to a neighborhood Janet knew, then park the car and ride public transport into the city. And all went well on the trip there until we got into the suburbs and I approached something in the road I had never seen in my admittedly limited driving experience.

“What the hell is that?” I asked, pointing to a street sign showing a large circle with labeled roads radiating from it in all directions.

“It’s a roundabout,” Janet replied, matter-of-factly. “We want to take [whatever the street/highway was] so you just need to swing around to that exit.”

“Okay,” I replied, without any conviction or confidence.

There then ensued one of the most frustrating 10 minutes of my life with Janet carping at me about “go here” and “change lanes” there, along with other drivers cursing my Wisconsin license plates and sharing the various intonations of the assorted horns with me.

Eventually, I navigated through the monstrosity, and on the way back from the city Janet judiciously led me on a path that avoided all roundabouts. She argued that it was the longer way back; I opined that we were actually saving considerable time.

So what, you may ask, brought about this recollection at this particular point in time? Well, I just received the renewal tag for the license plates on my car and enclosed with my tags was a business envelope-sized piece of paper, printed on both sides, labeled “RULES FOR DRIVING ROUNABOUTS.”

I assume some of you who are on the same renewal cycle have already seen this particular piece of paper but, for those who haven’t, allow me to now share some of the Wisconsin DOT’s insights into roundabout navigation (NOTE:  for clarity sake, the DOT’s instructions are in italics).

Steps for driving a roundabout:

Slow down. Obey traffic signs.

Yield to pedestrians and bicycles.

Yield to traffic on your left already in the roundabout.

Enter the roundabout when there is a safe gap in traffic.

Keep your speed low within the roundabout and stay in your lane.

As you approach your exit, turn on your right turn signal.

Yield to pedestrians and bicycles as you exit.

Okay folks, keep #6 in mind here as I share the next section with you.

Driving a roundabout with two or more lanes:

Observe and obey the signs and arrows to determine which lane to use before entering the roundabout.

Black and white signs on the side of the road and white arrows on the road will show the correct lane to use.

To make a left turn, be in the left lane or other lanes that are signed and marked as left turn lanes.

To make a right turn, be in the right turn lane or other lanes that are signed and marked as right turn lanes.

To go straight, observe the signs and arrows to see what lane in correct.

They then have a little map to show you what a roundabout looks like and how you can, hypothetically navigate right through to your appoint exit. The kicker is that the headline over the map reads: Lane choice is critical.

So here are two observations on the instruction above. First, did you notice why I called your attention to instruction #6 in the first section? If you didn’t, take a look at the second instruction in the second section where they talk about making left turns:  are we really supposed to use a right turn signal to make a left turn?

Secondly, there is the matter of Lane choice is critical. The very fact that they make this statement implies consequences if you fail to make the correct lane choice. But nowhere in the information does it detail any consequences whatsoever. I guess we can only presume that they are similar or worse than my Massachusetts experience.

The other side of paper contains instruction for emergency vehicles, large trucks, pedestrians, and bicycles (bicyclists must ride at least three feet from the curb and parked vehicles –really?!?!) in roundabouts. It also contains the DOT’s justification for increased use of roundabouts:  Crash statistics show that roundabouts reduce fatal crashes by about 90 percent, reduce injury crashes about 75 percent, and overall crashes about 35 percent, when compared to other types of intersection control.

And because my readership is so incredibly erudite and astute I know that you all realize that the reason these statistics seem so dramatic is that – like my return trip from Boston all those years ago – everyone does everything in their power to avoid driving through roundabouts.