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Traffic Circle Intersection Roundabouts Editorial - Righthand Drive

Tom Falconer Dec 1, 2005
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I love driving in the United States. Americans have mastered the art of making driving an easy and relaxing process-stay in your lane, leave a safe distance to the car in front, stop at red lights and re-start on green, and turn away from Do Not Enters. Whether listening to CDs or chatting with friends, it demands little involvement, particularly with an automatic transmission and air-conditioning to keep you cool, and very little sense of timing is required by the driver. The United States is a popular destination for the British vacationer, who was attracted first by the Florida theme parks and the cheapest car rental in the civilized world, competitive motels, and a common language. They soon fall in love with the sausage and pancake breakfasts, and are surprised by the universal politeness and courtesy.

London is the usual first stop for Americans visiting Europe, and I know the experience we offer is not as smooth as yours. When the Griswold family rents their Ford Focus at London Heathrow, they will be fighting the clutch and manual transmission because the family in front got the last automatic. But their problems really begin when they face their first roundabout, and there are at least five of them before the Griswolds reach the M4 motorway, which starts them on their 90-mile, three-hour drive toward the industrial Midlands and Shakespeare's birthplace.

The English are notoriously mean, the Scots are positively frugal, and we all obsessively turn out lights as we leave rooms. So the stoplight never had much of a chance controlling our road intersections-we just couldn't bear the waste of all that electricity. We've adopted the roundabout-you call them traffic circles or rotaries-as our primary form of road intersection. Its great advantage is there is no frustrating wait at a red light when the intersecting road is obviously clear, and they let you enjoy your Corvette's handling to the fullest even on the most mundane routes. Eugene Henard, who arranged that the Arc de Triomphe should be the island around which traffic flows in the Place D'Etoile in Paris, conceived the first roundabout in 1907 in France, but they were not generally used outside Paris until the '70s. They were popular in the United States in the '30s, but almost all were replaced by traffic lights, which were easier for the less-skilled drivers to negotiate.

When I started driving, there were no priority rules at roundabouts in the UK. The advice was to weave into the traffic flow, which often meant that traffic already on the circle yielded to entering traffic. At busy times, this led to gridlock, so in 1966 we changed to the present system where incoming traffic yields to traffic already on the circle. This reduced accidents and increased flow by up to 40 percent. Our close neighbors in France, who drive on the right, adopted roundabouts enthusiastically in the '70s, but always with priority to incoming traffic because of their Napoleonic rule in which traffic from even minor roads on the right always had priority. They had to change this in 1984 for the same reasons as we did, and mainly did away with priority to the right at urban junctions at the same time.

Corvette drivers love roundabouts. Our cars have great acceleration, quick steering, and superb adhesion, and they attract attention. On my 8-mile drive to work there are seven roundabouts with central islands varying from 15 feet on the smallest to 750 feet on the largest. On five of them, it is possible to get the tires howling, while two of them can be driven quickly while on the throttle using opposite lock (Posi-traction) if it's wet. One, which has perfect visibility but a strong camber, can be taken almost straight through at 75 mph, but only in a C4 with the FX3 suspension switched all the way to its slalom position.

The '84 to '96 C4 could have been designed as a roundabout rocket. It has the shortest wheelbase of any Corvette, and it's great with the fuel injection so the engine doesn't splutter at extreme g's and awesome grip. Ideally, a manual transmission helps control the power too. The next best Corvette model is a small-block '63-'67 C2, since the big-block is too front heavy. Maybe the driving position is better, but I have never understood why the C2 always feels so much more manageable than the C3, which shares an identical chassis. I love the C5 Corvette, but for smaller roundabouts its long wheelbase makes it too big; on the big ones, these cars are great. The ultimate roundabout Corvette is now the C6 because it has a g-meter!

American road engineers are starting to campaign for roundabouts to replace traffic lights, citing safety and environmental advantages. Support them-for nowhere is the advantage of the Corvette over the top-heavy SUV more apparent than on a roundabout.

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