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An invention which came into use relatively late, has been shown to prevent accidents and save lives in traffic. Now it has become so popular that it could end up getting on the nerves of delicate motorists.

You are sitting behind the wheel of your car, and as this is after all ViaRETRO, let’s just assume that it’s a delicious classic car with an appetizing wooden steering wheel. You’ve obviously donned your driving gloves in soft leather, giving you a firm grip on the steering wheels slippery surface. Your vessel and you are travelling at a brisk pace, but ahead a towering traffic light proudly shines its clear green light. The colour which permits you to continue on your way. Now it changes to yellow, and with your experience, you know that in a moment it’ll turn red. Soon the needle of the speedo will be resting at 0 km/h.

You now have the following two options:

  1. Floor the accelerator to increase acceleration. You will try to make the yellow light before it turns red.
  2. Accept defeat and start braking to reduce your speed. Come to a halt at the traffic light, which of course will gloat with its annoying red light.

We all recognise the situation: An angel on our left shoulder pontificating that option number two is what we must choose – precocious. However, most of us have probably also had a devil on our right shoulder, tempting us with the first option as things were just flowing some nicely.

Selecting option one occasionally causes the speed to increase just a tad too much before the light crossing is behind us. And at times the light might even have changed to red in the meantime anyway! There are numerous popular nicknames for such an occasion: Passing an orange light, or a taxi green. One may also regret halfway there, and desperately try to get the vehicle stopped before passing the signal. It can result in both squealing tires and the front wheels firmly planted within the pedestrian crossing. Both situations are a little embarrassing in the event that other road users are present. They are rarely an appreciative audience for one’s poor judgement. In the worst cases, it can even result in another car impacting the back of your car – if the driver was a little inattentive or in the belief that the two of you were playing follow the leader.

The traffic lights have always been a hotbed for traffic accidents: Vulnerable road users meet the tough, speeds of the involved are different, and so is the direction travel in the intersections. A place which requires extra attention.

The solution has in many places been simple: Replace the traffic light with a roundabout. A carousel, where several roads meet and depart, and thus a direct replacement of the classic intersection. In both the entrance and exit of the roundabout you turn right – at least in countries with righthand traffic. Logically enough, in countries with lefthand traffic, you navigate the roundabout clockwise.

Police officer Lund became an institution within the Copenhagen, where he from his podium at St. Hans Torv in Nørrebro (Copenhagen N) directed traffic with vigour and enthusiasm, as well as quick one-liners to the drivers. Officer Lund became so popular that taxidrivers and other citizens who often crossed the square gave Lund presents at Christmas.

But simply building roundabouts proved to be not quite enough. A slight change of the rules of the roads was required. Nowadays we have to yield before entering a roundabout, but it wasn’t always like that. Previously we always gave way to traffic approaching from our right – also in roundabouts. But this resulted in a lot of congestion, as motorists within the roundabout had to hold stop for motorists entering. For this reason, only a few decades ago, traffic planners avoided using roundabouts. The traffic lights were most often selected to regulate traffic on the intersecting roads of Denmark. But the rules for entering a roundabout were eventually changed, and today they is seemingly quiet an obsession with building roundabouts at every given opportunity. One of the benefits of roundabouts is that drivers requiring a left turn, manage such a manoeuvre much easier through a roundabout than in an traditional intersection. The speed of all motorists also have to be adapted to the curvature of the roundabout, and is therefore significantly lower than in a traditional intersection. Combine that with the fact that all cars are driving in the same direction, and it all contributes to a significantly reduced stress factor in a roundabout.

In 2010, the number of roundabouts in Denmark counted at 1,450, and in 332 cases they were actual conversions from a traditional traffic light junction. They also made statistics of what they perceived to be the effects. The overall figures showed that accidents decreased in number and also became less severe: The number of accidents and injuries have decreased respectively by 27% and 60%.

So even though I am among those who believe that the classic intersection is cozier as it became a natural place to meet – a roundabout is merely efficient, rational and thus creepy – it’s probably nothing but romantic hogwash. The statistics speak for themselves: We need more roundabouts! And we will probably get them too. It looks great in accident statistics, and there are some indications that it actually reduces travel time. Some even claim that in the long term it improves fuel economy, but I haven’t been able to find anything factual to prove this.

On one of my BossaNova trips through Western France, more precisely on the road between Le Mans in the north and Pau in the south of the Pyrenees, I was tremendously surprised by the number of roundabouts. The frequency of them was so high that it completely destroyed the driving rhythm, and I earnestly began to regard them as one of Satan’s inventions. Many of the areas on the route were deserted, so the roundabouts were frankly thoroughly unnecessary. Yet I obviously still had to pass through them and thus lost much speed with every roundabout I encountered. With a little practice, some of them actually weren’t that bad, but others possessed angles and curves so perfectly constructed, that one forcefully had to reign in the speed significantly in order to get through.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised though. Had I only done my homework properly, I would have known that France has half – that’s right, half – of all the world’s roundabouts (those are 2008 figures). In France alone, there are more than 30,000 roundabouts!

Regardless, based on the facts, an infinite amount of good can be said about roundabouts. And don’t forget that the roundabouts also allow for displays of art, flowerbeds and patriotic propaganda of both aesthetic and informative nature. However, it seems that many people have some difficulty with roundabouts. A driving instructor told me that many of his students consider it the biggest challenge. They feel that being in a roundabout is like getting stuck on a large rotating carousel.

Speaking of carousels, we of course all know the mother of all roundabouts: The one around the Arc de Triomphe. It is not for the faint of heart as it can deliver quite an intoxicating adrenaline rush. I am, however, by now both skilled and addicted to the challenge of L’Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. So much so that I always take three rounds whenever I’m there. However, I still always need to stop to catch my breath again on one of the smaller exit roads afterwards.

L’arc de triomphe du Carrousel 1921

I also have a favourite roundabout in Denmark, which equally tolerates an extra lap in the car. It is one of my local roundabouts and it’s called Femvejen (The direct English translation would be “Five Roads”). It is situated close to the Bernstorffspark north of Copenhagen and constructed in 1908 as a tram loop for the Line 15. Femvejen is the focal point for the five roads: Jægersborg Allé, Fortunvej, Vilvordevej, Ordrupvej and Bernstorffsvej.

The roundabout Femvejen when it was in service by the tram line.

The roundabout is located on Jægersborg Allé, which thus has both an eastern and western part meeting in Femvejen. There is therefore in reality six roads which meet in Femvejen. As is so often the case, the centre area of the roundabout has been used for a monument – in this case an obelisk which in 1913 was erected in honor of the King. All of us who regularly use the roundabout probably easily overlook the monument, hence an extra lap can be taken at regular intervals to ensure that the monument be seen and valued.

Femvejen today

Is there a roundabout which you particularly enjoy? One which deserves an extra lap? Or do you among those who feel the roundabout is a traffic solution which belongs only in industrial areas? Or are you perhaps even afraid of roundabouts?

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