The fatal flaw with roundabouts

by Al Goodhall


Several years ago, I sat in a meeting that was presenting the safety advantages of using roundabouts. We talked about how they prevented T-bone collisions that occur at conventional intersections.

We also discussed how if a collision does occur, it happens at a reduced speed and at a 45-degree angle, dramatically reducing the risk of serious injury to vehicle occupants. All good stuff. At least that is how it looked on the surface.

Sometime after that, I started taking an interest in Vision Zero, a system of addressing road safety in a very different way. Simply stated, “In every situation a person might fail. The road system should not,” Vision Zero declares.

So, when you look at that traffic roundabout, it is a failure because it doesn’t take into account pedestrians, cyclists, or anyone with any type of mobility issue.

We place all of those people on the outside of the roundabout, where the energy of all the vehicles is directed in terms of centrifugal force. Any loss of traction or steering control and it’s bye-bye pedestrian or cyclist.

We also don’t consider that pedestrians may have to move in a clockwise direction, as opposed to all the traffic that is moving in a counter-clockwise direction. So, pedestrians have to deal with vehicles moving in to the roundabout in which the driver is watching traffic approaching on their left but not paying any attention to the pedestrian on their right who may be trying to cross the slip lane in front of them.

So, there are many situations here in which a person might fail, and in doing so cause injury to another or to themselves. It does not matter if that person is a driver, a pedestrian, or a cyclist. The roundabout design fails because it has only been designed to reduce the risk of injury to vehicle operators and has not accounted for other users.

This concept of safety through design was hard for me to swallow at first. As a professional driver who takes a great deal of pride in my safety record and respect for other road users, I didn’t want to own up to the fact that I could cause unintentional harm to others.

If someone was harmed, it would not be my fault. That in fact may be true, but fault is not the issue, prevention is. This is the backbone of the argument for developing and building separate infrastructure to support all modes of active mobility. Simply separate high-speed motorized vehicles from all others. Problem solved.

For many years, I have been advocating a defensive driving approach on the part of individual drivers in order to improve road safety and reduce harm to all road users.

I felt by diligently practicing the Smith System of defensive driving and advocating its use, I could have a net positive effect on road safety. This may still hold true on the open highway, where modifying behavior is the only real option to improving safety, but within our cities design is by far the best way to prevent failure and ensure safety of all road users.

What I am finding really disturbing of late is an attitude that is displayed by growing numbers of drivers. That attitude is ‘me first.’

It puts all road users at risk. On the highway, where I spend most of my time, this attitude is reflected in speeding, following too closely, cell phone use, and all forms of aggressive driving that puts the individuals perceived right to get where they need to be as quickly as possible ahead of the safety of the whole community. On reflection, all of those things also happen on the roads in my own community. It is appalling.

As professional drivers, fellow truckers, we cannot give up. I remain a strong proponent of practicing kindness and patience every minute of my day behind the wheel.

I am committed to protecting the most vulnerable on our roads like the pedestrians and cyclists using that roundabout that started this conversation. I hope that you will take up that same challenge.

Al Goodhall has been a professional longhaul driver since 1998. He shares his experiences via his blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @Al_Goodhall

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  • A good article.

    Just think if they (the authorities) practiced or educated defensive driving practices you won’t need photos radar in 30 KPH or better still they won’t implement 30 KPH zones in the first place as the safe driving speed. The authorities want photo radar as a “cash cow” and that is the bottom line.
    Defensive driving practices is in the various Traffic Acts, just comply with the Acts.

  • Mr Goodhall you are absolutely correct about the me first mind set. Prime example 404 south bound at the 401 east and west ramps, i am in the south bound lane to take the east bound 401 just south of Finch Ave. there is a line up of traffic why because of all the me first pr cks,such as dump trucks some tractor trailers not to many unprofessional drivers, UPS trucks and a sh t load of cars running up the left lane and butting in even when there is the solid white line, Where Are The Police this is everyday I know that cell phone is a nice 615.00 ticket but they need to enforce other laws to. The car drivers think it’s there right to butt in if you don’t let them in they will force there way in, again me first. There are many more examples but to me this is one of the worst.

  • Some roundabouts are built to small. When your pulling a 60 foot 10 wide trailer and your truck is up on the side walk and the trailer wheels are over the inside curb in order to get around it, a little bigger would help.

  • You have written another great article Al. I agree with everything that you elicited. But roundabouts are here to stay, and they do cut down on serious collisions. I just wish that the MTO, municipal councils, and the provincial government would mount an education campaign on how to properly use a roundabout. They can start by posting signs at each approach to a roundabout encouraging motorists to signal their intentions. I’ve witnessed many near-collisions in roundabouts because everyone is guessing what their fellow motorists are about to do.

  • Hey, Great viewpoint on this!

    Another thing I absolutely hate about roundabouts is that if there is a long, very long flow of traffic from one direction entering the roundabout, and you want to enter from another entrance, you’ll sit there all freakin’ day until another vehicle comes from another entrance to break up that long flow of cars entering at the one entrance. What the F?

  • Article fails to explore the concept of a hybrid system consisting of a roundabout with traffic lights (a “roundalight” perhaps). The lights can be used to assist with pedestrian access through the roundabout (when requested by a pedestrian). At all other times the roundabout should function as normal. If you’re going to identify a problem with a design then don’t just write off the whole thing, try to find a solution. Imagine how inefficient the roads would be if we replaced all current roundabouts with traffic lights (there are already way too many traffic lights, it’s beyond obsession).