One of the first things I noticed about Europe – aside from all the posh clothes and the widespread affinity for wine – was the traffic, and more specifically, the many roundabouts in the various cities and towns we passed through each day. When it comes to traffic flow, it seems Americans are behind the curve, sticking stubbornly to our old-fashioned system of intersections and stop signs. Moving through a city with a roundabout seemed much faster and far more efficient than sitting at stoplights and waiting for them to turn green. So why aren’t there more roundabouts in America? According to Tom Vanderbilt of Slate Magazine, Americans rely too much on their past experiences, and therefore have a hard time accepting change (surprise!) even if it will make life more efficient.
Mentioning roundabouts seems to invoke some form of the famous “availability bias,” which leads people make judgments based on the memories that can be brought most easily to mind. And so, the American who may have driven as a tourist in France or Greece a number of years back will shudder with recognition, associating the roundabout with terror and near misses. But motorists with such memories often fail to consider that they were driving as tourists in unfamiliar climes, perhaps only for a few days. Roundabouts, like the language, the signage, the food, and just about everything else, were strange and novel, and so the tourist driver, already probably feeling a bit wigged out—for a roundabout in Italy is filled with Italian drivers—felt a heightened level of stress and thereafter consigned the roundabout to the dustbin of terrible ideas—or things that might be good for Europe (like socialized medicine) but don’t translate.
Studies have shown that roundabouts save time, are safer, take up less space, and even require less energy from cars. With evidence like that, maybe it’s time Americans started thinking outside the box, and started embracing the roundabout revolution.