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Roundabouts, intersections and motorcycle safety | WhyBike? Motorcycle Blog

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Roundabouts, intersections and motorcycle safety

By James - 8/6/2008

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If you have driven abroad, roundabouts can be a strange and scary experience. A constant stream of vehicles, short merges and cars entering and exiting from all directions can test the wits of the uninitiated. But for those who are used to them, roundabouts are a more efficient and safer alternative to intersections. This is especially true for motorcyclists.

Roundabouts and intersections have quite a few “conflict points”. These conflict points are places where vehicles can collide with other vehicles, bicycles or pedestrians. According to Roundabout USA, intersections have 56 conflict points versus 16 in a roundabout. Wikipedia editors prefers roundabouts because they have “40% fewer vehicle collisions, 80% fewer injuries and 90% fewer serious injuries and fatalities”. There are a number of reasons for this, but the best reason is that it eliminates the bane of all bikers, the unprotected left turn.

The commute home yesterday on my wife’s Yamaha was 17 miles of stop and go, tight lane sharing, and navigating the aging pothole-pocked infrastructure of California’s heyday. I was sitting at the intersection of Brannan and 7th in San Francisco’s SoMa district waiting for the light to change. The light turned green and I revved up and dropped the clutch. An oncoming boy racer decided he did not want to wait to for traffic and jumped out to make a left before traffic is in the intersection. Typically he would have made it easy, had the delivery truck and lost tourist slowly proceeded through the intersection. But I was already through of the crosswalk, and seeing me jump out only made him more determined. He accelerated, communicating to me that he was committed. Still in first gear, a swerve and ease of the throttle transported me out of harm’s way, and I gave him a friendly one finger “biker salute”, the kind we save for boneheads like him. Ten years ago this would have been a panic situation for me. Unfortunately it happens so often that I anticipate it and my reaction has become rote.

The number one cause of urban fatalities for motorcyclists are from cars making unprotected left turns violating bikers’ rights of way. Motorcycle going straight, car turning left… crash. Most cagers state that they never saw the motorcycle. I contend that most cagers are not paying much attention. And that is why roundabouts may be too much for most American drivers. They require you to plan ahead, anticipate and adjust your speed and be aware of your surroundings. Traffic lights tell you when it is safe to proceed. You don’t have to think about it.

Roundabouts are being built in the U.S. but are still a rare sight. Just two blocks from my boy racer incident is a traffic circle at Townsend and 8th. While it is not a standard roundabout, you have to stop before entering instead of yielding, it is a much less hectic and time consuming than an intersection. I urge all urban planners as well as citizens and motorcyclists who care about safety to look into roundabouts for accident prevention, speed regulation, to save money and for the other advantages that they offer.

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    Here in Australia (just substitute left for right when thinking of turns), we commonly refer to roundabouts as “fuckabouts” and planners seem to LOVE them. Unfortunately, there is a distinct difference between roundabouts where people know how to use them, and roundabouts where people don’t. A lot of this comes down to confidence getting into the flow of traffic in an appropriate sized gap, but almost nobody knows how to indicate properly. I much prefer them in a car or bike, but long sweeping turns with a lot of traffic aren’t great for oil on the road, either.

    Comment by
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    Dubito — 8/6/2008 @ 3:05 pm


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    As Dubito mentioned, it is one thing to have roundabouts where people know how to use them, and a completely different thing to have them where people have no clue how to use them. Here in Saudi Arabia it is dangerous enough to drive a car, let alone a motorbike, simply because the majority of drivers are oblivious of everything around them, and they leave almost no traffic law unbroken. They haven’t come to the realization yet that even cars can disappear into their blind spots. And here there is always a “me first” attitude to driving that prevents them from yeilding to other drivers when they should. Often times what will happen at a roundabout is that there will be a little traffic inside the roundabout, and a whole bunch of traffic coming like a stampede from outside the roundabout. Now the law says that the traffic from outside should yeild to those inside the roundabout. That doesn’t happen here in Saudi Arabia simply because the traffic inside the roundabout gets outnumbered. In such a situation, a regular intersection with traffic lights would be the quickest solution because the drivers here have their brains switched off by default. The right solution, which would take a very very long time, would be more education for the drivers on how to drive propoerly.

    Comment by
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    Samgoody — 8/11/2008 @ 12:55 am

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