18 May 2009

Drivers welcome

While the motorways are pretty straight and boring, the secondary (and tertiary) roads can be a gas to drive on. Much of the country is quite hilly, and the roads snake up, down, and around through them. In some parts of the country (such as Scotland), drivers on these roads are expected to go fast even when there's a single lane in each direction, and if you don't go fast enough, be prepared to be passed, even on a blind curve.

Even more thrilling are the “lanes”. Much of the country is paved with roads that are only a little over 1 lane wide, even though they are meant for bi-directional traffic. And the lanes are often lined with very tall hedgerows, making it difficult to see what's coming. People often go flying down the lanes, even though you're only supposed to be doing 20 MPH on them. So not only is driving on them at speed challenging, but you get to practice your emergency maneuvers when you suddenly come upon an oncoming vehicle, or a happy family out for a walk.

And then, of course, there is the roundabout , possibly the greatest traffic control invention ever. There are few traffic lights at UK intersections and even fewer stop signs (in fact, I don't think I've ever seen one). Instead, at the place where two or more roads intersect, some sort of circular construction is created at the center around which traffic flows in a clockwise direction. Drivers in the roundabout to your right have the right of way, and your lane where you enter determines if you are going to turn right, left, or continue straight ahead when you leave the roundabout. The result is that unless things are heavy or lots of traffic is coming only from one road, cars never really stop-- the traffic just keeps flowing with perhaps a brief slowdown or pause. And they build these things at all kinds of scales, from little mini-roundabouts that are only about 8 feet wide for little suburban intersections to motorway on/off ramps where the roundabout is large enough to contain a softball game.

Sometimes they do seem to get a bit carried away, as with the monster roundabout in Hemel Hempstead where three roads intersect, creating a six-sided roundabout. Not satisfied with a roundabout with six entry/exit points, they decided to structure the roundabout as a hexagon rather than a circle, and at each vertex in the hexagon they installed a mini-roundabout to control the traffic a bit better. THEN, they decided that simply having traffic flowing clockwise wasn't sufficient, and so they added a secondary traffic ring inside the primary ring in which the traffic flows counter-clockwise (but do say “anti-clockwise” while you're here). The result is a roundabout that's the favorite of the area's drivers license road examiners.

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