I recently read a report dealing with how drivers negotiate roundabouts, and the findings defy belief.
But of course roundabouts themselves are examples of utter insanity.
And capable of inducing it in a person whose mental faculties are otherwise in perfect working order.
When I’m driving and I approach a roundabout — and my family is unfortunate enough to be along for the ride — my kids weep in the silent way that people do when they’re paralyzed, almost literally, by fear.
My wife stoically assumes the crash position.
Oxygen masks fall from the ceiling.
It’s possible that I’ve confused that last part with a scene from “Airplane,” but suffice it to say that my every tussle with a roundabout — and there is a definite martial flavor to these episodes — creates an aura of panic and crisis most usually associated with an impending explosion at a large industrial facility that processes toxic substances.
There are frantic flicks of the gearshift lever, whiplash-inducing jabs at the brake and gas pedals, rapid and apparently random spins of the steering wheel, all with a background cacophony of tires noisily shedding rubber.
And that’s just me.
Among other drivers, those already stuck in the traffic version of a maelstrom are willing to do almost anything, including going airborne, to disengage.
Those approaching the roundabout swerve into any convenient shelter, whether sidewalk or front yard, to avoid becoming embroiled in what seems to be my deliberate attack against an inanimate object.
And one with an interesting, if indecipherable, piece of public art perched in the middle.
Given my personal history with roundabouts it is no surprise that an email with that very word in its title would catch my attention among the daily bushels of digital chaff.
The subject was a poll conducted by PEMCO, an insurance company.
As is customary with fallible polls — how many of our elected officials, comfortably ensconced in their taxpayer-supplied office, supposedly lost, based on exit polling? — the PEMCO query about roundabouts yielded findings which suggest an alternate universe where a different sort of physics reigns.
To wit, most drivers who responded (76 percent) claim they negotiate roundabouts with competence, yet almost as many respondents (64 percent) insist that they frequently see other drivers muck things up.
Obviously a lot of people are lying to PEMCO.
(Not that a lack of candor is uncommon among people when conversing with their insurance provider. “Do I smoke? Of course not,” insists the putative policyholder whose nicotine-stained fingers suggest nothing so much as advanced jaundice.)
All I know is that I’m not responsible for the abysmal roundabout performance that 64 percent of PEMCO’s pollsters claim to have witnessed.
No more than half of it, anyway. Sometimes weeks, and even months, will pass when I don’t get within 50 miles of a roundabout.
Which is very nearly a miracle for the traveling public.
Of course between those two statistics — 76 percent of drivers who tout their own skill, and 64 perce nt who find other motorists’ acumen lacking — it’s all but certain that the latter is far closer to reality.
Among activities that most adults engage in regularly, I would wager that driving is the one for which we’re most likely to exaggerate our ability.
Indeed, multiple studies — ones with rather more validity, I suspect, than an insurance company’s poll — have consistently shown that a majority of drivers will rate their performance as better than average.
Author Tom Vanderbilt examines this idea in considerable detail in his fascinating, and at times unsettling, 2008 book: “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What it Says About Us).”
As Vanderbilt notes, it’s statistically implausible that most drivers are better than average.
Psychologists deem this tendency the “optimistic bias,” but Vanderbilt’s reference to Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon — “where all the children are above average” — better captures the essence of the absurdity of the idea.
Vanderbilt notes that psychologists have found this effect is more acute when applied to activities for which it’s difficult to rate a person’s proficiency.
This isn’t the case for, say, brain surgery or basketball, where a person’s scarcity of talent is apt to reveal itself clearly — and, in the former example, disastrously.
Driving is different. Even a poor driver is likely to complete most journeys without mishap, after all. It’s to be expected, then, that many people would assume that the main reason, if not the only reason, that they manage to avoid disaster behind the wheel is their own skill.
I know better.
I know, for instance, that when I enter a roundabout it’s the driving equivalent of walking a tightrope.
I’m not ashamed to admit that roundabouts confuse and frighten me, and that whatever aptitude I have for operating an automobile is severely atrophied during those tense moments as I go ro und the circle, knuckles not just turning white but actually sinking into the steering wheel’s rim, like chocolate chips disappearing into pancake batter on the griddle.
Just because I’ve yet to come to a bad end in a roundabout doesn’t mean I have conquered either my fear or my confusion.
Vanderbilt, as you might expect given the subject of his book, has quite a lot to say about roundabouts.
He writes that roundabouts are statistically much safer than traditional four-way intersections — the latter being the site for about half of all crashes in the U.S.
Roundabouts are safer largely because their design reduces the number of what traffic engineers call “points of conflict” — an engineer’s euphemism for the place where pieces of metal collide noisily and messily — from 56 to 16.
I’m prepared to accept Vanderbilt’s figures as genuine, since I know as little about traffic engineering as I do about, say, brain surgery.
But I immediately felt better when I read this sentence in Vanderbilt’s book, in which he explains the paradox between what statistics reveal — that roundabouts are much safer than traditional intersections — and what most drivers, such as me, feel.
“The system that many of us would feel is more dangerous is actually safer, while the system we think is safer is actually more dangerous,” he writes.
Never mind that roundab outs truly are safer.
I defy any traffic engineer to gaze upon the terrified faces of my children when they’re in the middle of one of those infernal circles, prisoners of fate and of their father’s failings, and tell me that safe is what those innocent passengers are feeling.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.