The Traffic Circle

If you are not from New England, please let me be the one to educate you about the anachronistic and utterly tragic concept of the traffic circle. If you are from New England, screw you because you probably already cut me off in a traffic circle at one point or another.

The traffic circle might have been a reasonably intuitive undertaking 200 years ago when most people in my neighborhood were driving palominos instead of minivans. The traffic circle is clearly the result of poor urban planning, where a bunch of roads came together in a surprisingly unorganized fashion and there was apparently no better solution than to create a massive dead end in the shape of a circle and let travelers figure out the details for themselves. It’s like a handy little Darwinian experiment. If only the founding fathers had invented the urban traffic grid instead of the Bill of Rights, we might not even be having this conversation.

A traffic circle is a racetrack-like section of road, which abruptly appears for no apparent reason but to merge several haphazardly arranged avenues together like spokes on the Wheel of Terror at the traveling carnival. Once you enter the circle, the object of the game is to escape unscathed. It is also convenient if you are able to exit heading in the right direction.  Entering and exiting the circle is like playing chicken at the Indy 500.

As far as I can tell, traffic circles exist for only two reasons. One, so the Geico Gecko has a target demographic to which he can market his wares, and two, so carpooling parents can teach their children useful swear words in an immediate and meaningful context.

The rules of the circle are simple and finite:

  • Vehicles already traveling in the circle have the right of way.
  • This explains why cars entering from the fringes of the circle generally never even hesitate for a moment before accelerating and practicing their “I can’t see you. Don’t even bother to honk your horn because I can’t hear you either. And, nope, I couldn’t even make out the blur of that finger you just raised in my direction because I just achieved Mach 3.” look. Whoosh-pop!

  • Vehicles should always enter the circle by turning right and then continue in a counter-clockwise direction. Ummm. Yes. I have seen cars enter the traffic circle by making a left turn and then, not realizing their error despite compelling and immediate evidence, continue to drive clockwise, upstream while all other vehicles frantically veer out of their path to save themselves.
  •  A traffic circle is a circle. This simple fact escapes most motorists, who generally will resort to any variety of desperate measures to leave the circle when they realize they are about to miss their planned exit. Generally drivers slam on the brakes, literally posing a life and death scenario to the drivers at cruising speed behind them. Another apparent option, which I witnessed in disbelief for the first time this week, is to courteously let drivers pass you until they are out of harms way, and then throw it into reverse and GO BACKWARDS to regain access to the exit you just passed. What these drivers do not realize, however, is that they are IN A CIRCLE. By definition, if they continue to GO FORWARD, they will shortly arrive again at the precise location they presently occupy. So everyone was absent on the day they taught circles in third grade. I consider it my duty as a good neighbor to roll down my window and scream, “It’s a circle, moron!” every time someone hits the brakes in the circle I pass through for my morning commute.
  •  To exit the circle, carefully approach the right lane, ignoring the countless drivers carelessly flinging their vehicles into your path while simultaneously talking on their cell phones without the aid of hands-free devices.

If  you have, against all odds, safely achieved entry into the circle, you generally have one of three unappealing options that may or may not include the benefit of survival:

  1. Stay in the circle until you approach the exit for your destination and then hope to be flung out by centrifugal force.
  2. Stay in the circle until you muster the nerve to cut someone off, and exit at any point, regardless of whether or not it points toward your destination.
  3. Stay in the circle for the rest of your life effectively cutting off all ties with anyone you ever knew who is not presently in the car with you.

There are five traffic circles within two miles of my house. They are an unfortunate trial I must endure every day. I was once the victim of a sideswipe while I was SITTING STILL at the entry point of a nearby circle. The other driver became so flustered, she threw it into reverse and sideswiped me again, going backwards, in case I missed it the first time. All while I was sitting perfectly still. Which seemed like the safest option at the time. But maybe next time I should just plunge  blindly into the vortex with the rest of them. Or just invest in a palomino.

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21 comments on “The Traffic Circle

  1. Andrew says:

    We actually have a pretty wicked traffic circle by my house. And yes, I almost get in accidents constantly. It’s not good for my heart, but man is it an adrenaline rush.

  2. seapunk2 says:

    heh, heh, heh…. very entertaining. I happen to live in the Pacific Northwest, and there are NO traffic circles here. I am, however a native of Massachusetts, and surely remember them! Hey, is Wellington Circle still in existence? That one scared the crap out of me….

  3. peachyteachy says:

    Could you please make a public service video for your state’s tourism department? Or at the very least a photo montage using hot wheels and lego guys?

  4. seapunk2 says:

    Reblogged this on seapunk2 and commented:
    A very interesting expose’ by blogger ifyoudonthaveanythingnicetosay on the “Traffic Circle.” Have fun!! Wheeeeeeeeee!!!

  5. I had my first experience with a traffic circles this last year when I was in New Jersey. Oh dear Lord I went round and round trying to figure the thing out without wrecking my nephews car. And what about the darn GPS? it did not help one bit. Seemed like it was recalculating the whole time I went round and round. I did not know where to get off. I am glad to be back in Cali so I do not have to face that devil again! Great article!

  6. julie ross says:

    The worst part about the traffic circles near our houses is the inability to flip the bird to anyone since it is, in all likelihood, someone we know. In fact, have I flipped you off lately?

  7. hughcurtler says:

    You haven’t lived until you have driven in England — where there are traffic circles at practically every intersection — and the traffic is always going the wrong way!

  8. I really dislike traffic circles. They seem to be becoming more and more common here in the Western US and I want to scream “NOOOOOOO!” I REALLY don’t see how they keep traffic flowing so smoothly considering the amount of death and distruction they must cause!

  9. jelizabeth says:

    I am glad someone finally wrote this post. I have long been tempted to write a How to Drive in a Rotary guide, but this is better and funnier.

    I don’t know if rotaries suck in general, or just the ones in our neighborhood that you write about. My hunch is that a good rotary should only be one lane wide. Our problem is that the rotary is too wide, which is why cars are always swerving from one edge to another and have no idea how to drive in one. (They enter, go to the middle, and then try to get out to the edge again when exiting. Stay at the edge, my driver’s ed teacher taught us.)

    Ours is definitely unsafe. However, rotaries are safer than intersections, believe it or not. Studies have been done: http://www.economist.com/node/21538779 Although I doubt studies have been done of P. Circle — this is the only place I have ever, as a driver, slammed on brakes, because of some loser who tries to pass me from the left and exit in front of me, which is common, but a no-no.

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