Silicon Valley roundabout has drivers in a spin

Accidents at intersection quadruple

The United States are widely free from roundabout tyranny with only one for every 33,330 people. A good thing too because people passing by the city of Hollister, just south of Silicon Valley, can't seem to grok their new one.

Mind you, this isn't your common-and-garden roundabout. This is a "turbo" roundabout, which, despite its name, causes traffic at intersections to move even more slowly and safely. At least that is the idea. It is the first of its kind in the state of California.

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The roundabout opened in February at the intersection of Highways 25 and 156, where previously the roads unceremoniously ran into each other – something practically unheard of in the Old World.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) said the intention was to reduce the severity of collisions and fatalities at the intersection.

However, the first official report on its performance has recorded a crash at the roundabout every two and a half days on average, compared with every eight days before.

Footage from the roundabout shows people driving round the British way – clockwise – and running into oncoming traffic, and others riding roughshod over the three-inch-high lane dividers to get where they think they need to be. They clearly didn't watch this relentlessly chirpy video from Caltrans on how to use the thing.

Youtube Video

The befuddlement on display is a symptom of the European export being a rarity in the Land of the Free, and a fear of becoming Clark Griswold in National Lampoon's European Vacation. Even in the early 1990s, there were few roundabouts [PDF] in the entirety of the US. They multiplied in the intervening years though uptake is slow.

In Britain, there is said to be one roundabout for every 2,678 people, so it's a bit less of a shock. France is even richer in roundabouts, with one per 1,580 people.

The turbo roundabout design originates from the Netherlands. The concrete lane dividers are supposed to make people drive slower and more cautiously, though clearly to some they represent little more than a barrier to freedom.

Jim Shivers, a spokesman for Caltrans, said: "There is typically a period of time following construction that travelers learn about the roundabout. Then, typically, those minor incidents, the concerns about the roundabout, all of that begins to cease.

"People do understand how to use roundabouts in this country. And I would say to our friends overseas – there's a learning curve, a short one."

There is one outlier in the States, and that's the city of Carmel in Indiana, which has the most roundabouts in the world with north of 150 for a population of 100,000. The former mayor, Jim Brainard, fell in love with them while studying in the UK as a young man and proceeded to fill Carmel with the traffic-calming measure as a replacement for traffic lights.

Over the pond, the UK's most infamous is Swindon's "Magic Roundabout," which consists of five miniature roundabouts around one central roundabout that goes the "wrong" way, if you're British. Though it sounds terrifying, it is cited as enabling complex emergent behavior from following very simple rules – don't crash into someone, follow the lines, give way to people already on the roundabout, and point where you're going.

We wish Californians the best of luck. ®

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