Metropolis

How Hard Could a Roundabout Be for American Drivers?

A frustrated driver holding a steering wheel w/ his right hand and a clenched left fist.
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Northeastern Kentucky has gotten its first traffic circle, and the results are not exactly Churchill Downs.

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Roundabouts are beloved by traffic engineers because they reduce serious crashes—the installation of a roundabout, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, cut crashes by 38 percent and fatal and incapacitating injury crashes by 90 percent, by reducing head-on collisions and T-bone crashes.

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That was the thinking in Rowan County. “We’re looking at a way to reduce the severity of crashes that this intersection has a history of,” a state transportation official told the local TV news earlier this month. Roundabouts have the additional benefit of reducing emissions, since cars do less stopping and starting.

But, obviously, there’s a learning curve. In a 2007 study, researchers found that U.S. drivers mostly did not want roundabouts before they were proposed but came to prefer them after they were built.

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While the U.S. is building more roundabouts now, we still lag behind Europeans on this crucial traffic safety feature. The Faroe Islands even have a roundabout underwater! In France, the world leader in roundabouts, the circular intersections were instrumental in bringing annual traffic deaths from an astonishing 18,000 a year in the early 1970s to fewer than 4,000 in recent years. The U.S. has lagged far behind the rest of the developed world in reducing car crash deaths.

Then again, some French drivers view the ubiquitous, dizzying traffic circles as a burden imposed by egghead central planners—the natural point of departure for the “Yellow Vest” protests that rocked the country in 2018. Maybe Kentucky drivers are simply doing civil disobedience.

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