#284 Roundabouts : Going in Circles

Traffic circles (or roundabouts if you prefer) are not fully embraced or completely understood by most Canadians. But they’re not half-bad, once given the benefit of the doubt.

The familiar chicane is dead ahead— a simple left-right-left—and approaching at over 100 kmh. I squeeze the front brake and downshift two gears, lining the bike for the entry. Pitching the bike in, I lean hard through the first left, then flick right through the apex and left again, cranking the throttle and accelerating hard onto the straight.
Mosport? Shubenacadie? The Corkscrew at Laguna Seca? Nope. My favourite chicane is in the UK, a particular roundabout (traffic circle if you prefer) on the A217 between Sutton and the M25, south of London.
Roundabouts are some of the most fun you can have with your riding clobber on. As well as providing exhilarating interludes to the most tedious turnpike, you can also use them for knee-down practice. Find a quiet place and time—Sunday afternoon, say, in an industrial park—and you can circulate a roundabout to your heart’s content—or until you wear out your knee slider.
Perhaps the most famous traffic circle in biker culture was the notorious Neasden roundabout, a minute or two from London’s Ace Café. This legendary donut was the turnaround point for the Ace’s “record race,” a burn-up to Neasden and back on the old North Circular Road in the time it took the jukebox to play a 45. (If you don’t know what a 45 is, you’re reading the wrong column.) Many tried, few made it. Crashes were common, death a constant companion.

ROUNDABOUTS ARE THE SAFEST, most efficient and cost effective types of intersections. That’s why they abound in Europe and the rest of the sensible world. So why aren’t there more of them in Canada?
When I first moved to Canada, I was told it was so we wouldn’t scare tourists from the US; but that doesn’t make sense, because few drivers in Canada understand them either. Yet the principle is disarmingly simple: you always circulate counter-clockwise (in North America, that is), and always yield to traffic already in the roundabout. That’s it! It becomes a little more complicated if there’s more than one lane, but the principle is the same. And a simple “yield” sign and some lane markings should overcome any confusion.
The kicker is that not only do roundabouts cut congestion and therefore reduce air pollution, but they’re safer, too. Research has shown that fewer collisions occur at roundabouts than at signal-controlled intersections; and the severity of the collisions is also reduced. A number of driving factors are cited: first, you have to slow down for a roundabout (rather than blasting straight through an intersection); you have to be engaged and paying attention, because traffic awareness and active driver inputs are required; and once on the roundabout, all traffic is flowing in the same direction, virtually eliminating head-on collisions.
But the real bonus from a motorcyclist’s point of view, is that roundabouts effectively eliminate the most common type of motorcycle-car collision: the “sorry, I didn’t see you” car turning left across the path of an oncoming motorcycle. For that reason alone, traffic circles should replace stop-sign and traffic-signal intersections wherever possible.
Like many Canadian burbs, the roads around my area are arranged in a grid. That means lots and lots of intersections, most controlled by stop signs. The stop sign rule is simple: you come to a full stop behind the sign, then proceed if the way ahead is clear.
Right near my house is a four-way stop where two minor roads cross. A couple of weeks back, I’m riding home and, as always, slow down and stop at the stop sign. There’s a car approaching from my right, but it’s a four-way, so I start to roll forward—but something tells me all is not well: the driver is not looking at me and the car is maintaining its speed. Sure enough, it drives straight through the four-way stop without slowing. But for my instinct (call it controlled terror), this would be my obituary, not ‘English Speaking.’
Earlier, I’m sitting at a signal-controlled intersection, waiting at the red light. A hatchback barrels into the intersection from my left—and smashes head on into an oncoming SUV, the driver of which was turning left. Fortunately, both drivers seem okay apart from the emotional stress. But both vehicles are write-offs. This type of collision is one of the most common at intersections, and with a high potential for fatality—and it can’t happen on a roundabout.
A couple of months before, I’m riding behind a buddy on his classic MV Agusta through Vancouver’s tony West side. As we approach an intersection, I can see a big German SUV barreling along the side street to our right. The SUV goes straight through the stop sign, turning into the exact spot where Dale would have been—if he hadn’t caught it in the corner of his eye and taken evasive action. Otherwise he and the MV would now be part of the tarmac. Dale’s health notwithstanding, the MV was one of fewer than 30 made, and irreplaceable: it was worth a lot more than the offending SUV.
So if stop signs, de facto, don’t work, why not replace them with roundabouts? Yes, it will cost some money, but what price is a life? These days I’m frankly terrified of riding along the main street in most towns. Even though I scan the requisite 12-14 seconds ahead and cover the front brake, there’s no telling when some phone-texting clown is going to cruise through a stop sign, and cream me and my bike. Roundabouts work: they’re safe, efficient—and fun.
What’s not to like?