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Thursday, July 03, 2008

A new driving challenge: roundabouts

By Dick Hirsch

As a group, I have always had the highest regard for the average Buffalo area driver. Yes, I am hedging ever-so-slightly as I make that statement. The hedging approach becomes apparent with the use of the adjective “average,” to modify the noun driver. Exactly what is an average driver? I am safe in asking that question since nobody really can enumerate the specific behaviors of the average driver.

Full disclosurewise, I should say at the beginning that I am not a member of that average driver class. For years I’ve been recognized as a member of the above average or superior driver group. Some people would not agree with that characterization but I don’t intend to dwell on that issue, since the topic of each individual’s driving skill has been the subject on ongoing debate since the days of the Ford Model T. Everyone thinks they are above average, but only a few of us truly are.

At any rate, the fact is that Buffalo drivers clearly outrank drivers in so many other areas. Places like New York, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, Rome, Paris, Patagonia and China immediately come to mind.

Average Buffalo drivers have certain skills that are unmatched elsewhere. Those skills deal primarily with the challenges of winter. Certain winter driving techniques and strategies are passed on from generation to generation of Buffalo families. As children we learn by observing our parents as they maneuver through perennially unplowed side streets or back up through knee high drifts in the driveway. Motorists from places like Richmond, Charleston, St. Louis or Philadelphia, although exposed to snow on occasion, crumble when faced with challenges like those.

But a new challenge is emerging in our community, one for which drivers must be alert. It is the arrival of the roundabout. What exactly is a roundabout, you ask?

It is a traffic control and safety measure, designed to smooth traffic flow by eliminating stop signs and traffic lights at certain intersections.

Is it like a traffic circle? Not exactly.

We have had traffic circles in Buffalo since the years following the park designs of Frederick Law Olmsted. Although they have been in existence since the 19th century, there are still some drivers who have been unable or unwilling to comprehend the navigational tactics recommended for use in circles. The most familiar examples of traffic circles are Gates Circle and Niagara Square, both highly visible and lovely locations on Delaware Avenue. They remain daunting sites for motorists and pedestrians, the scene of accidents and arguments involving drivers. Why? Because some motorists believe they are born with the right of way no matter the situation or the setting.

Will the same be true of roundabouts? We shall see. The New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) is championing the cause of roundabouts and is installing one on South Park Ave. in Hamburg and two within a short distance on Harlem Rd., one at the corner of Cleveland Dr., Cheektowaga, and the other at the complex intersection of Harlem, Kensington Ave. and Wehrle Dr.

In a leaflet distributed in the neighborhoods, the DOT has this to say: “The number of roundabouts constructed in the United States is relatively small....Early results generally indicate that roundabouts have resulted in an overall reduction in the number and severity of accidents, despite the initial concern that lack of familiarity with this type of intersection would lead to driver confusion.”

I must admit I have more than a modest interest in roundabouts based on my experience driving in the north of England a few years ago. There I was, a rookie in a perplexing situation, sitting behind the wheel on the right side of the car and driving on the left side of the road. I don’t mind saying that my palms were sweaty, especially when I discovered one roundabout after another. I was surrounded by Brits who all appeared to know exactly where they were going and seemed confident they would get to their intended destination.

I tentatively eased into one roundabout, and then the next and the next...and I emerged unscathed. The secret is this: once you’re in the roundabout you have the right of way. You need to exercise care while entering and position yourself to exit at the right spot. At least once I went around a couple of times trying to exit. The British drivers are very polite. How will drivers behave in Hamburg and Cheektowaga? Good luck.


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