Swings, Traffic Lights and Roundabouts

The roundabout was my undoing when I made my last, futile attempt to learn to drive some twenty-five years ago. Yesterday’s depressing report that suggests we need even more of them is the final nail in the coffin of my motoring ambitions. I know now that I’ll never be able to do it.

The underlying problem is that I can’t do more than one thing at once. I can concentrate ferociously on one thing, and switch, in the blink of an eye, to another, but two things at once just isn’t possible. My overall ‘throughput’ is good, but I do things in series not in parallel.

True, I can breathe and walk at the same time, but those are instinctive activities. If there is more than one thing I have to concentrate on at once, I fail. That’s why I could learn to play the oboe (one note at a time) but not the piano (two hands being directed to do different things). How can you tell one hand to do this whilst telling the other hand to do that?

I tried to get through the entire miserable process of learning to drive in just one week. It didn’t help that I loathed my driving instructor. He was an irritable man, and spending six hours a day with him for a week, was absolute hell. Actually, I think he loathed me even more than I loathed him. Perhaps the problem was that I simply didn’t enjoy being told what to do. From time to time he would seize control of the wheel or slam the brakes on using his own set of pedals, and he could never satisfactorily explain why.

In approaching a roundabout he would issue utterly contradictory instructions, getting me started on the ‘slow-down and stop’ process (down through the gears, one by one, up and down with the clutch, and then the brakes) and then, quite suddenly, he’d reverse his instructions. If there was no one on the roundabout he’d switch hysterically to ‘No, go, go, go….’. I can’t imagine ever doing all the ‘slow-down and stop’ things on my own, as well as looking out of the window and turning the wheel.

Finally, I got out of the car and told him to do it himself. He drove me back to the Driving School and I caught the next train home. And that was that.

The good thing about traffic lights is that they’re a matter of stop or go (amber is stop as you approach, go if you are stationery). You can see them from a distance, so once you’ve started the ‘slow-down and stop’ process you can reasonably expect to complete it.

So I prefer traffic lights and I’m horrified to read in this recent report that 80% of traffic lights should be entirely removed, and replaced, I presume, by roundabouts. Traffic lights, we are told, cost the UK around 16 billion pounds a year in lost GDP, assuming that they delay every journey by two minutes, on average.

The roundabout, we are told, is greatly more virtuous:

  • Greater overall throughput (16 billion pounds more throughput)
  • Lower CO2 emission levels (because of that ‘STOP-no, don’t stop – GO’ feature)
  • Fewer serious accidents (speeds are lower when accidents do occur)
  • Easier for pedestrians to understand where traffic is coming from
  • Prettier (often planted beautifully, and sometimes bearing welcoming messages such as ‘Swindon, You’re Welcome To It’)

There is much that you can read about roundabouts in Wikipedia. For example, that the French have the most (indeed 30% of all the world’s roundabouts), and that the British have the highest proportion to road surface (these could be useful cocktail party factoids to go with how to avoid that contraflow system near Hove).

Over the years I’ve learned to be a useful passenger, despite my not actually knowing how to drive (well, I know, but I just can’t do). I generally keep a watchful eye on the driver and I’m known for the useful advice I offer him or her from time to time. I can now pass through roundabouts without undue anxiety, thanks to decades of trauma therapy that followed my abandonment of driving lessons all those years ago. It’s ok as long as I’m not at the wheel. But I will always avoid Swindon and Hemel Hempstead if I can. These two towns are home to ‘magic roundabouts’, devices that are a level more complex than the simple ‘binary’ roundabout.


A ‘magic roundabout’ is a central circle with an additional ‘satellite’ circle for each approach road. Enter one at your peril. Elderly drivers have been known to get lost in these for decades.




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