27 April 2010

Round and Round

I've been doing a lot of driving recently, and am happy to say that I am no longer terrified of causing an international fender-bender incident because I didn't know whether a certain sign meant I was going the wrong way on a dead-end street, which, if you think about it, is impossible anyway, even though I'm pretty sure I was doing exactly that the other day on a street with alarming red and blue signs apparently telling me not to proceed and not to go the opposite direction.

Negotiating Swiss streets requires speed-reading. There are signs over the road and beside the road, and even signs written right on the road. It's kind of like playing 3-D chess. Fighter pilots are required to have superb "3-dimensional situational awareness." Ditto for European drivers, for whom the next piece of life-saving information could be written virtually anywhere, including on that window-box of tulips outside the neighborhood bordello.

My favorite European traffic device is the ubiquitous rond-point. This is a circle of roadway that appears at many intersections. Instead of having to hit the brakes at a stop sign even if you can see that there's not another vehicle within hundreds of meters, drivers decide for themselves whether or not they can safely glide into the circle and proceed to their chosen connecting street without infringing upon the grillwork of another driver. Even better, a rond-point is often covered with a mound of beautiful flowers or an interesting mosaic of bricks or stonework, allowing traffic to freely flow around it like chi around a lovely mandala.

Indeed, in the USA we sometimes call the rond-point a "traffic-calming circle," or a "roundabout." But mostly we don't call it anything because it mostly doesn't exist in our country. 

In Hawai‘i, my previous home, there is little that is calming about such circles. When the county government announced plans to put in only the second roundabout in the state, certain concerned citizens all but mounted an insurrection, sending out a public letter calling on their neighbors to resist this crazy foreign idea, and instead "order up four stop signs ... and tell the mayor and the Neighborhood Board to go away."

But why do Americans have such antipathy towards this obviously efficient and graceful traffic device?

One day a few years ago, after considerable rond-point traffic observation from the vantage point of a Parisian sidewalk café table eventually festooned with carefully arranged empty wine glasses standing in for traffic cones, I figured out why Europeans love the roundabout and Americans loathe it. Europeans love it because they get to make their own Existential choice whether to brake or play poulet with that tilting Heineken truck heading around toward them. It's that liberté thing. In the U.S. of A., we prefer a good sturdy stop sign because it's completely clear what we're supposed to do. Plus, it gives us excellent supporting evidence for our personal injury lawsuit.

In Peseux, the village just downhill from my house, there's a place where two rond-points nearly touch each other. Together they form a sort of figure-eight. Or an infinity sign. I have to admit that this arrangement is rather too deep for me to comprehend yet. So tomorrow I plan to drive around both of them until things clarify -- or until I'm chased down by a cop. But I'm sure that won't be a problem. Certainly we'll both be very calm.


  1. Akron is going roundabout crazy and I couldn't be less on board. Can't figure them out. I negotiate them like a cat patiently looking over a mole hole waiting for something to happen. Usually, nothing happens.

  2. You gotta get a little aggressive -- but also go with the flow. Think of the rond-point as just a curvy street, and you've got a yield sign. It may also help to curse in French at any driver who edges in too soon.

  3. Hilarious! I'm positively terrified to drive here...

  4. Just close your eyes and think happy thoughts -- en français ou deutsch ou italien -- you'll be fine.