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The Other Side: The Christmas Floundabout

No matter who said it, it is quite relevant here: “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

I was lucky to learn how to complain at the feet of a professional complainer, my Hungarian grandmother. Both literally and figuratively. Because “oy, my feet” was a constant complaint.

I’m convinced complaining gave her 94 years, expelling the dark shadows of a contemporary American reality she never really approved of, having left Hungary not by choice but in a rush to save herself and the three out of five of her kids she was able to take. She avoided the normal influenzas and minor diseases that afflicted most everyone else by almost never leaving the large Bronx apartment she shared with my uncle and aunt and two cousins. It was double the size of ours on the other side of the building and provided her enough room to fill her combined bedroom and living room with a half million geraniums, morning glories, and other exotic houseplants that, along with her liberal use of perfume, exported a near constant mostly sickeningly sweet smell.

She swore by her daily dose of boiled chicken that fueled her litany of oys—working her way up from toes to ankles; shins to knees; hips; stomach; small of the back; and, of course, the head which ached. Oy this and oy that …

I was reminded of this when hearing and reading the continuing comments about our—well you might call it the Roundabout but from the very first time I encountered it with my good buddy Bill in his white pickup, who feared it the way others fear snakes, I suspected it was much more likely a Floundabout.

And because I know complaining like the back of my stiff neck, I quickly started to catalogue all I had overheard at our various saloons, the produce section of Price Chopper, the hot bar at the not quite co-op, and then the seemingly never-ending flurry of Facebook comments and complaints.

You might appreciate a short explanation of the name. It seems to me that we drive without thinking. In many ways, were we to take real stock of what we’re about to do: Get into a machine with a bunch of moving parts all communicating to various newfangled computers, constructed with so many deliberate complications that the time when what you only really needed was The Idiot’s Guide to the Volkswagen and some Craftsmen tools, now reminds us of the days of the dinosaurs. At this point these days we proceed to speed down the road with hardly enough room between other drivers to safely stop when they decide they really need to lean all the way over to pick up the CD that fell off the passenger’s seat the last time they hit the brakes too abruptly.

Coincidentally, I just happened to learn some relevant statistics from the very smart epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, who was comparing getting Long COVID to a car accident. I’ll save the COVID data for another time: “The annual risk of getting into a car accident is 1 in 30 per year for the average driver. Of those accidents, 43 percent are likely to be injured. And, of those injured, 10 percent are permanently impaired. So, the annual risk of permanent impairment from driving is 1 in 700.” A statistic no driver wants to know. A statistic I’m betting you’ll forget the next time your car starts.

Just a short while ago, driving to Big Y or Guido’s or Great Barrington Bagel was a piece of cake. It hardly even registered. You were there before you even realized you’d been driving. Now, for many, the short drive provokes floundering, a mild to moderate sense of concern, but for some an occasional terror that they might never make it alive for the four-for-five-dollar special on Ronzoni macaroni. Zipping down the road minding your own business, daydreaming like always, then boom, you’re suddenly thrust out of your comfort zone. Think fish out of water, flopping confusedly on the bottom of the boat. The Floundabout.

The first time around, I was going too fast. Didn’t realize that my car, which I had previously been convinced wasn’t terribly wide, was now not quite sure it could make it around that first narrow passageway to the Floundabout. Sort of like navigating that S-curve beneath the tunnel past Domaney’s onto Route 41 when a garbage truck is coming at you. There was no denying then that this actually required a lot more concentration than I imagined. No wonder my buddy Bill was worried about his pickup truck.

It was when I returned safely home to my computer that I started to catch up on the Facebook comments. Adding them to what I had recently heard in and about town. I began by organizing them into several categories: those seriously annoyed by the very existence of our new Floundabout; those with very particular complaints about how our new Floundabout and its drivers fall so very short of the Roundabouts and the Roundabout drivers they had loved elsewhere, including some comments from those lucky enough to have encountered them in the U.K (one during his residence as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and another who was just driving around London lost while looking for fish and chips, then ever so luckily encountering the idiosyncratic Old Street Roundabout). Not really much that’s ’round there. Maybe Squareabout?

Old Street Roundabout in Central London. Photo courtesy of Jack Torcello.

To those critics, you can add those I refer to as the counter-complainers. I hope they take this as the compliment it’s meant to be, but it seems they have managed to craft a most sophisticated form of complaining, a variety that my grandmother could only dream of. Born, I surmise, out of their severe annoyance with what appears to them as a growing legion of complainers. I don’t know them well enough to know whether this disapproval is reserved to the very specific issue at hand, or rather extends to the general.

Yes, it seems that there are those amongst us who have absolutely no use for complaining of any kind. Perhaps you’ve met a few along the way, as you traverse not only the straightaways of life, but a variety of Floundabouts: those quite comfortable telling you quite loudly if you’re thinking of complaining, don’t, keep your trap shut, suck-it-up, and just get on with it.

Now, as for me personally, I know well the story that the traffic experts were responding to an increase in accidents at the intersection of Route 7, north and south, and the incoming cars from Route 23 with all the rationality they could muster. And the result:

The design of our new Great Barrington Roundabout. Diagram courtesy of MassDOT.

But I confess I lost confidence in the traffic experts when forced to live with the results of their efforts to fix downtown traffic on Main Street in Great Barrington. Now I’m not complaining, but the very look and feel of it reminds me more of a homogenized anywhere USA than small-town New England. And with the added extra lane on both sides of street for that very brief several blocks a mad dash by those who are already driving too fast to begin with to pass those obeying the speed limit ensues—all to gain an extra minute or two on their rush to get to Canaan, Conn. perhaps. But mostly they just make it hard for drivers on the innermost lanes to see those hoping to survive as they cross the street at Railroad and Main.

Doesn’t it sometime seem like there is someone, somewhere higher up than most of us who decides that if we are to make progress, well then we’ll just have to change. And when the someone is maybe the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, well then, these someones also have the money—our money, ironically—to pay for what they’re convinced we need. And because they know progress when they see it, all resistance is pretty much futile. And these changes always manage to manifest themselves.

Now, as I explained earlier, I’m a big believer in the life-extending effects of complaining. So as far as I’m concerned, let the complaining continue. Just get them out. It doesn’t help anyone, especially your significant other, to keep them in. Why not complain about the boss who is not only cruel but out golfing two or three times a week. Absolutely complain about the employee who still doesn’t really understand what the company does. Let it rip about the $30 steak that’s undercooked, the steak that’s been burnt. If you have any doubts, remember my grandmother who survived all those geraniums, and all that tasteless chicken to rack up almost nine and a half decades.

But back to the Floundabout. Naturally, those less appreciative like to begin with the fact that they managed for years, maybe decades without it. They always stopped at the red light when coming into town from Egremont and Route 23. One, because they always knew a red light was a red light and you had to stop for it, and two, it didn’t hurt that the Police Station was right across the street. So, if anybody had asked them if they truly needed to drive a tiny bit around a bit of a curve to go to Sheffield or a lot more of a circle to get to Railroad Street, they would have said, “Not really, I’m fine as it is, but thanks for asking.” Then, they would suggest a half dozen better ways to spend the money they spent on the Floundabout, like maybe fixing a bridge or paving some roads or doing something about the water in Housatonic.

But, as I learned during the public planning sessions for Downtown Redevelopment, public participation might make it into the written proposal, or maybe even justify hiring a staff person to write everyone’s good idea down on the whiteboard, or maybe mention some of them in a press release. But nowhere is it written that any of the experts actually have to listen to our ideas or make any of them happen. I mean, really, what does the public know?

Many of those happiest with progress suggest that pretty much everything about how to navigate and enjoy and appreciate the Floundabout should be obvious to any decent driver. And perhaps the ones that don’t get it probably shouldn’t be driving at all.

A most recent Facebook episode focused on the meaning of “Yield.” And, not surprisingly, there was a noticeable lack of unanimity on the issue of what one is really supposed to do when confronted by a Floundabout Yield sign.

Based on some of the comments, it appears that a few of us are either more cautious and careful or less able to quickly and comfortably move forward while simultaneously checking all the traffic that’s making its way around the circle. Now, some critics are especially annoyed that some of these cautious drivers actually stop to do the checking. Perhaps they’re imagining that Yield in this instance might mean stop. I learned there is an actual phrase to describe this condition: “Undue Hesitation.” Some consider this habit a serious betrayal of what might make ours as successful a Roundabout as the other, envied towns possess. While the lack thereof is clearly responsible for the devolution into what we now sadly possess, the Floundabout.

This leads some of the more militant critics to suggest a culling of sorts. Perhaps requiring the intervention of the RMV to de-license those who somehow have managed to secure their credentials without really understanding how to yield, and most importantly, how to navigate our Floundabout. If you ask them, you couldn’t reasonably get a license without knowing how to safely, but much more importantly, quickly and efficiently make your way around it.

When I saw the RMV had been invoked, I quickly understood I need to consult the vehicular Powers That Be. So, reminding myself of the professional obligations of The Opinion Writer, I decided to undertake a serious search for the Truth According to MassDOT: “Guidelines for the Planning and Design of Roundabouts,” Revised March 2022.

MassDOT’s “Guidelines for the Planning and Design of Roundabouts,” March 2022.

I refer you to the illustration on Page 10:

MassDOT 2022 “Guidelines for the Planning and Design of Roundabout” — Section 1.3 Roundabouts. Highlighting added.

The added black lines in the image above indicate the relevant text: “YIELD SIGN AT ENTRANCES: Entering traffic always yields to circulating traffic at roundabouts.” (Emphasis added.) I’m guessing this may not be as helpful as the authors intended, leaving some to wonder about the perfectly appropriate moment to stop yielding and re-start driving.

Clearly, more research was required. How about consulting Massachusetts General Laws, Part 1, Title XIV, Chapter 8g: “The driver of a vehicle approaching a yield sign shall in obedience to such sign slow down to a speed reasonable for the existing conditions and, if required for safety to stop, shall stop at a clearly marked stop line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection, or, if none, then at the point nearest the intersecting roadway where the driver has a view of approaching traffic on the intersecting roadway before entering it. After slowing or stopping, the driver shall yield the right of way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time such driver is moving across or within the intersection or junction of roadways …” (Emphasis added.)

I’m sure that clarifies matters for you. My problems is with the significant numbers of “if none.” And, giving the benefit of the doubt to the cautious, doesn’t the language “a speed reasonable for the existing conditions,” combined with “and, if required for safety to stop,” offer some impressive wiggle room. This, by the way, is why I’m a far more natural client than attorney. Maybe a prospective juror. Clearly, I’m easily confused by confusing language.

Doesn’t the language that follows offer the most cautious of us, those lacking a sense of certainty, a valid reason to stop “at the point nearest the intersecting roadway where the driver has a view of approaching traffic on the intersecting roadway before entering it.”

Now add the following information for those most critical of the drivers who slow down at the Yield signs of the Floundabout, slowing down to the point of where they’re hardly moving. Those who are so cautious, they prefer stopping. Perhaps they’re aware of the consequences of getting it wrong, the mistake of proceeding too quickly, so quickly they might perhaps cause an accident. And so Chapter 8g continues: “if such a driver is involved in a collision with a vehicle in the intersection or junction of roadways, after driving past a yield sign without stopping, such collision shall be deemed prima facie evidence of his failure to yield the right of way.” (Emphasis added.)

Hopefully, the Rules of the Road simplifies all these matters:

Travel on public roadways is controlled by signs, signals, pavement markings, and driving laws. No matter what vehicle you drive or what road you drive on, you must obey these ‘rules of the road.’

“
You must learn how to drive properly on:

  • “Streets, roads, alleys, and avenues
  • “Traffic circles (rotaries)
  • “Highways, expressways, and freeways” (Emphasis added.)
Massachusetts Rules of the Road – Stop and Yield Signs, p. 86.

There are those who think the signs just don’t help. They have pretty much given up on the cautious, imagining themselves forever burdened by those whose fear guides the way they drive. With a tad bit of bitterness, they are preparing themselves to lose—not gain—time in the Floundabout.

At times, the discussion reminded me of debates in the Supreme Court. What did the Founders really mean by Yield? In the attempt to justify their very conservative opinions, Justices Antonin Scalia, and more recently Samuel Alito, turned to centuries-old British legal decisions. I immediately thought of Oxford, and the Headington (Green Road) roundabout. Built in the 1930s, surely the stoic Oxfordians have much to teach us. But as some simple research reveals, no such luck. After all these years, there is public debate of no small consequence on the utility and meaning of signs. As senior sports reporter James Roberts, a wise choice if you ask me, informs us in the Oxford Mail of June 24, 2020:

“A DRIVER who had a collision at a major Oxford roundabout is the latest to call for better road markings to avoid further accidents. The motorist, who asked to remain anonymous, sustained minor damage to his car at the Headington (Green Road) roundabout while attempting to cross from the Eastern Bypass to the westbound A40. He is one of many motorists to fall foul of the ‘confusing’ markings for Barton-bound traffic, which were changed for the Barton Park development.”

The Green Road Roundabout in Headington, UK. Image via Google Maps.

If you’ve been following the ongoing debate here, this report will sound remarkably familiar: “The issue has been flagged multiple times on the website FixMyStreet since summer 2017, but Oxfordshire County Council says it will not make any more alterations while work at Barton Park is ongoing.

“The anonymous driver, from Risinghurst, claims the markings put motorists in a difficult position and wants them to be made clearer.

“He said: There’s this very weird layout and it makes no sense to me. It beggars belief.

‘I was just driving forward and the next thing I knew another car was in front of me and I took it out.

‘It’s difficult as I was obeying the Highway Code and the other driver was following the markings.'” (Emphasis added.)

Based on this dispatch from Oxford, perhaps looking for guidance from those across the pond might not be the smartest approach. And while Boston and the RMV haven’t helped all that much, what about the Feds? How about the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration? Granted, their 2010 Alternative Intersections/Interchanges: Informational Report (AIIR) wasn’t exactly like reading the debate of the Founders during the Constitutional Convention, but surely it would provide some guidance about how our federal government wanted us to deal with the Floundabout:

“Roundabouts are a form of intersection control in which the turning movements of the intersection are separated physically by a central island, and the traffic moves along the travel lanes surrounding the central island. Traffic leaves the intersection by executing a right-turn maneuver at the appropriate leg. Roundabouts are popular in many parts of the world. In the United States, there are limited applications, but they are increasing in number as drivers become more familiar with them. Although similar in concept to rotaries and traffic circles, roundabouts are different in geometry and operation. Their differences are highlighted in the FHWA publication, ‘Roundabouts: An Informational Guide.’ Figure 141 shows the geometry of a typical roundabout …”

I realize there’s been an awful lot of suspicion these days about authenticity and the manipulation of images, especially since our former president’s hawking Photoshopped images of himself as a Wild West gunslinger and accomplished golfer, so I’ve pasted in the aforementioned “Figure 141” of the federal document itself. Believe me, I couldn’t have made any of this up if I tried.

US DOT Alternative Intersections/Interchanges: Informational Report (AIIR), Chapter 6 Roundabouts.

It might fall on deaf ears, but I’d like to counsel patience and more patience. The Brits who have had a fairly long time to get it right, are still failing. And, I’m not sure whether you’re aware of this, but MASS DOT tells us that it wasn’t until 1990 that the first roundabout was constructed in the United States. And it wasn’t until nine years later that the first modern roundabout was constructed in Massachusetts: in Barnstable, at the intersection of Route 149 and Race Lane. For those who haven’t traveled east of Agawam, Barnstable probably only exists when summertime visitors return from the Cape with wondrous tales of lobster rolls. Some of the most cautious drivers have lived full lives without ever confronting a Floundabout. Just maybe they deserve a break.

Given their discontent, some commenters might be amused by one of the claims made by Mass DOT in the discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of their roundabouts: “SAFETY: Reduce crash severity for all users, allow safer merges into circulating traffic, and provide more time for all users to detect and correct for their mistakes or mistakes of others due to lower vehicle speeds.

“TRAFFIC CALMING: Reduced vehicular speeds. Beneficial in transition areas by reinforcing the notion of a significant change in the driving environment.” (Emphasis added.)

We are in the midst of the holidays, and no matter your faith, this is a time of charity. In the patience category, I’d like to suggest that there are amongst us those less fortunate: those no longer able to throw a football, no longer able to heave a 50-pound bag of whatever over the shoulder, I dare say those no longer able to touch their toes, or knit a sweater without dropping a stitch or two. Just imagine for a brief moment, that they are pausing, perhaps even stopping so that they can more successfully turn their neck that required 90 degrees. That they have come to a temporary halt so as not to smash into your new Subaru.

Mass DOT Design Guide – Viewing Angle.

Who knows how many lives the cautious have saved?

I’ll admit to being intrigued by this notion: “the turning movements of the intersection are separated physically by a central island, and the traffic moves along the travel lanes surrounding the central island.” I’m sure an awful lot of thought has gone into determining the best possible flow rate, the maximum width rate, and the size of the island. Yet it seems clear to me that the engineers are hedging their bets when it comes to lane width. Hence the Truck Apron: “An apron is the traversable portion of the central island adjacent to the circulatory roadway that may be needed to accommodate the wheel tracking of large vehicles.”

Or in ordinary English: We know we haven’t made the lanes big enough for anything larger than a car, so rather than drive into the liquor store, please drive onto the center island or what they call the Traversable Central Island.

I have to admit, I’m impressed by the unwavering optimism of the MASS DOT:

Mass DOT Guidelines For The Planning and Design of Roundabouts – User Consideration: Large Vehicles. Highlighting added.

Somewhere along the line I was taught about the difference between theory and practice, which, with apologies to whichever of my teachers attempted to explain it, went something like this: Theory is an idea about how the world works, or a particular aspect of life while practice is the real life experience that happens when you actually attempt the theory.

Several people including the great Yogi Berra and Albert Einstein—quite the couple—have been given credit for the following notion, but in fact it was first used in 1882. But no matter who said it, it’s quite relevant: “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

And so whatever theories have promoted our Great Barrington Floundabout, the continuing controversies over exactly what vehicular behavior a Yield sign should provoke, what speed a Floundabout vehicle should maintain, who actually deserves to attempt the Floundabout, who amongst us wants to be within the Floundabout when a tractor-trailer driver on his twelfth hour of driving time tries to figure out how much of the Traversable Truck Apron he really needs to make it to safely deliver the frozen turkeys to Big Y.

You think maybe you can do without a turkey this holiday?

At the end of the day, I think we should all pause to take a big breath and celebrate the fact that, even despite the best efforts of Elon Musk and Donald Trump, we still live in a country where we can debate how unreasonable it is, and what a big inconvenience it is to have to stop while someone’s grandmother, far braver than mine, needs a moment to consider whether it’s safe enough to enter our Floundabout.

And as for the reason she might just stop at some point: Well, how about wondering what the odds are one of those frozen turkeys might make it through her windshield before she has a chance to make the two apple pies her grandkids have come to count on for Christmas.

As for the rest of us who don’t drive a lorry or an 18-wheeler, DOT Santa reminds us we too can utilize the apron. And cyclists can use the sidewalk.

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