A round about route to safety

151113-google-car-jpo-332a_1a7c82e4f3c1dd903a802e36ed35fbaf.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000Technology comes in two types: physical and social. They work in parallel. An obvious example was the introduction of the printing press. It made books cheaper, but this was useless to the large majority of people who couldn’t read. The social technology of literacy had to spread alongside the spread of printing presses. This took centuries. In principle, seniors should be the people who benefit most from digital technologies. Housebound people can shop from home and keep in touch with friends and relatives. But if people are unable or unwilling to learn how to use them then there’s no benefit.

This tension between the physical technology and the skills to use it is one reason why traffic circles and roundabouts are so rare in the US. The modern roundabout, in which traffic entering the circle yields to traffic already in the circle, is a British invention which has been enthusiastically adopted by many countries around the world, but not the USA. Even the terminology is confusing. The Department of Transportation uses the term “modern roundabouts” for this type of intersection, but they are called “traffic circles” in New York State and “rotaries” in Massachusetts.

Drivers who are unused to this particular type of intersection find them confusing and dangerous, but once people are used to them they greatly enhance road safety. The problem is that if a state invested in greatly expanding its number of roundabouts then drivers visiting from other states would make mistakes leading to collisions. That said, the case for roundabouts is overwhelming. Collisions are not only rarer but the collisions which happen are much less serious.

The most dangerous type of collision is between cars traveling in opposite directions. If they are both traveling at 30mph their speed relative to each other is 60mph. If you are traveling at 30 and rear ended by a vehicle traveling in the same direction it would have to be traveling at 90 to hit you with the same force.

Since all vehicles on a modern roundabout are traveling in the same direction, collisions usually involve cars clipping each other from the side when one is traveling 5 or 10mph faster than the other.

Despite modern roundabouts being a British invention they have been most enthusiastically adopted in France, which has 22.2 roundabouts per 1,000 intersections, compared with 7.9 in the UK and 0.9 in the US. France has 5.1 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants annually, which is less than half the total of 10.6 in the US.

American roads are not more dangerous than those in France because the French have superior driving skills. Having cycled in both countries, your columnist can attest that French driving is not an example to the world.

The biggest road safety innovation of coming decades will be driverless cars. While these will be available within a few years it will be a generation before they are close to universal. In the meantime, the US could make its roads safer by building roundabouts. Avoiding five fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants is a significant saving. In a country of 300 million people it comes to 15,000 people a year. That’s three times the total American military fatalities in the entire Iraq war every year in deaths which can be easily avoided.

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Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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