If you’ve traveled in Europe or watched old movies with Audrey Hepburn perched on the back of a Vespa zipping past ruins, you’re sure to have noticed the traffic circles. These busy hubs have been a fixture in ancient civilizations and cause no alarm to the sophisticated Europeans. However, in the last few years, we’ve added a few smaller traffic circles, or “roundabouts” in our small Alabama town, and they’ve caused a literal stir.
The Roman soldiers steered their chariots around the curves, thus avoiding time consuming traffic lights. Now, their modern tiny cars, taxis, scooters and busses smoothly glide side by side in a space with no marked lanes whatsoever, and pedestrians somehow meander through the swirling chaos unscathed.
Locally, our Fords and Chevies ignore the “keep moving” signs and come to a screeching halt the first time they approach the simple one lane circle. “What in the tarnation?” “How do we get on it?” “Which way do we go?” “Did my tax money pay for this?” “Look at the cows!”
“Alfred! Keep going! The cars behind us are tooting their horns.”
“They’re just saying howdy.”
The first weekend the traffic roundabout opened, I saw two young men in a small pick-up truck, with bare feet dangling out of the passenger side window and their fishing poles swaying in the back bed. Hoots of laughter came from within as the truck went around and around – four times in total, as I watched in my rear-view mirror, and probably more as I drove away. In a small town, these roundabouts are the most exciting thing to happen since we started watching the city council argue on live stream.
Lots of signage with directions on how to use the roundabout actually ruin the beauty of the elegant swirling path. A chunk of cement curb in the center is already knocked out of place where someone decided to save time by cutting straight across the middle.
In the olden pre-roundabout days, I often took this road to my son’s school in the mornings. There was a dangerously ignored four-way stop, and many mornings I was blinded by glaring sun or heavy fog. Even more dangerous, were the chivalrous Southern gentlemen who insisted, “you go first.” “No!” I’d shake my head. “Follow the traffic rules and just go!” They’d smile, and gently try to wave me through while people behind him were agitated because he wouldn’t take his rightful turn. I adore good manners, but a four-way stop isn’t the place for gentility.
It’s like the Daytona 500 now with grandma cutting in front of the school bus which sways to the side as it almost leans on two wheels to keep out of the way of the monster truck following behind. I never thought there would be so much excitement driving through the bucolic scenery of Alabama farmland. But here we go, finally getting around to bigger and better things.
City planners have predicted with the exploding growth in our area, this countryside intersection will soon rival the Roman Palazza Venezia, but for now, the cows get a kick out of watching us spin out of control on a circular path. We feel sophisticated, in a round-about sort of way.
This story first appeared in the Mobile Press Register, Birmingham News and Huntsville Times.