Theoden Janes

A roundabout way of saying: I hate traffic circles

More roundabouts have recently been added in and around Charlotte.
More roundabouts have recently been added in and around Charlotte. N.C. Department of Transportation

For us working stiffs, there are probably one or two points in our individual daily commutes that inspire at least a little spike in anxiety and, at most, a fantasy about mounting a rocket launcher on the roof of your automobile.

Maybe it’s the bottleneck on Independence in Stallings. Or the stoplight at Providence and Queens roads. Perhaps it’s the interminable wait to get off I-77 South at Exit 11A/B in the morning, or the equally infuriating crawl from I-77 South’s Exit 1B onto I-485 toward Pineville at the end of the day.

And if you ask me, it’s those two stupid roundabouts on Benfield Road at the northernmost tip of the I-485 loop. Within less than a mile, there are five other stupid roundabouts – two on Prosperity Church and three on Prosperity Ridge – and they are well-known in these parts because they serve Highland Creek, one of the largest subdivisions in North Carolina.

These, by the way, are nothing like the two circles at I-77 Exit 30 in Davidson, or the one in SouthPark’s Piedmont Town Center. Those are large, well-behaved and have an elegant flow. Our “Seven (Traffic) Circles of Hell,” as I like to call them, are small, anarchic and stupid.

Sorry, I guess it’s not fair to call roundabouts stupid, per se. In fact, Rick Noack of The Washington Post this week argued that Americans should love roundabouts (like the French do) because, well, they’re just so darn smart.

“Researchers say roundabouts can save lives,” he wrote. “According to data by the American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, ‘roundabouts reduced injury crashes by 75 percent at intersections where stop signs or signals were previously used for traffic control.’ Apart from preventing cars from crashing into each other, roundabouts also saved the lives of countless pedestrians.”

That’s fine. I believe him, and I believe the researchers. But I still hate traffic circles.

I mean, I like the idea of them. I also like the idea of, say, Costco. And then I get inside Costco, or a roundabout, and – especially at peak times – it’s complete chaos. There’s gridlock at the entrance; at a certain point you’re either in somebody’s way, or somebody’s in your way, or both; and at rush hour you’re not going to be able to get through it without a little blood on your hands.

Hey, I get it. Traffic lights are more dangerous. But everyone knows what to do at a traffic light: Red means stop, green means go, and yellow means stomp the gas pedal and hope a cop isn’t pulling up to the intersection you’re about to barrel through. (I’m kidding about that last part, Officer. Totally kidding.)

At roundabouts, meanwhile, people have to use their brains much more subjectively. To quote a 2009 Slate article: “We have grown used to (and feel comfortable with) binary, on-off traffic control. We suspect such signals are more efficient than the ‘fuzzy logic’ that seems to govern roundabouts. Roundabouts require drivers to make their own decisions and assess others’ actions, rather than relying on third-party signals.”

The result: Drivers wind up behaving almost exactly the same way they do at intersections during power outages, when the traffic lights aren’t working.

That is, the overly cautious types just sit there and wait, while the self-important types blow through without even slowing down. Once a self-important type opens the floodgates, everyone behind them just follows blindly in their wake, as motorists stack up behind the overly cautious type.

So what you’ll see if you stand at the Benfield/Robert Helms roundabout and just observe for 30 minutes or so – which I did during the afternoon rush on Thursday – are hundreds of motorists interpreting simple yield signs in a variety of ways.

You’ll see motorists coming up the I-485 off-ramp and entering the traffic circle without slowing down (illegal); you’ll see motorists heading north on Benfield who jump into the circle without yielding to the traffic already in it (illegal); and you’ll see motorists who stop (when they should be yielding) just long enough to let a line of cars start flowing into the circle from the left (when they should be yielding).

Can’t picture it? Then picture this: People yelling. And leaning on horns. And laying down rubber. And putting up middle fingers. And having fantasies about mounting rocket launchers on the roofs of their automobiles.

Like I said, I believe you, Mr. Traffic Engineer. I believe roundabouts can improve safety by slowing traffic to 20 or 30 mph. I believe that T-bone crashes and head-on collisions tend to drop when all traffic is going in the same direction. I believe that crash rates have decreased by almost half where roundabouts have been installed at existing intersections.

What I simply can’t believe is how crazy they drive people.

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes