Poor Safety Standards at the Federal Highway Administration

‘Modern roundabouts’ were invented in Britain in the 1960s and these were a dramatic improvement on the rotaries and traffic circles of old.  For whatever inexplicable reason, they were not introduced by the USA until the early 2000s — following over 40 years’ of prior use and best-practice development elsewhere.

Several years ago, at a conference in Washington D.C., hosted by the Secretary of Transportation, I raised a question about why the FHWA was issuing very inadequate guidelines to drivers about how to use such roundabouts and not doing a good job in using good signage for them.

To my surprise and pleasure, at the end of the meeting I was approached by the very genial and professional Joe Toole, who was at that time the Administrator of the FHWA, and who pleasantly asked me whether I would be willing to work with two of his staff, to help develop more suitable guidelines. I happily agreed and offered to do so for no fee because the matter was of such importance to drivers.

Suffice it to say that as soon as Mr. Toole retired, his primary nominated individual, with whom he had asked me to work, dismissed my services with extreme rudeness as being ‘irrelevant.’ Very saddeningly to this day — by best-practice standards — the guidelines being used both for appropriate signs before roundabouts and for actually driving through roundabouts in the USA are still just as inadequate as before.

‘Layout’ or ‘map’ signs are extremely important for safety, especially on multi-lane roundabouts, so that drivers know which exit they need before they even enter the intersection, yet very few states are using them — a failing which almost certainly lies at the feet of the FHWA. The sign in this photo is in Colorado. Washington State is particularly good at putting good ‘map’ signs far enough before the actual roundabout; another important factor. [Copyright image.]

To this day, modern roundabouts are being built in many states — as they very much should be — but nowhere that we know of are drivers being given adequate advice on how to use them in the safest-possible way. This, in turn, leaves drivers oblivious to the huge benefits of well-designed roundabouts and some people remain afraid of using them… not a desirable outcome at all.

The lack of knowledge and advice, together with inadequate engineering, also mean that opportunities for two-lane or even three-lane roundabouts inevitably are not being built where they would be extremely beneficial.

On the other hand, the FHWA publishes a major document which seeks to create identical standards across all 50 states, the very unsnappily-titled ‘Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways.’ Even its abbreviated title of ‘MUTCD‘ bodes ill for exciting reading. However, it would be wonderful — and much safer — if all of the states did in fact stick to these impressive guidelines, yet all-too-frequently they don’t.


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