Let’s say you and I live in a small city of 30,000 people, more or less. We drive the roads regularly to go to work, drop the kids off at school, make a quick run to the grocery store, and maybe keep a medical appointment or two. So do our neighbors. America is a car culture after all. In our hypothetical town about 10,000 of us are actual drivers.
Our first roundabout appears on the edge of town, outside the heavily trafficked downtown area. A single-lane roundabout, it’s a simple example of this traffic taming design. This particular roundabout is intended to handle the traffic at a four-way intersection where two roads cross at a right angle. Today there isn’t much there, but there are plans for rezoning that will allow commercial and industrial development in the future. The development will benefit our town’s bottom line.
All good so far, right?
Let’s say the State Department of Transportation and our local police department freely distribute information about how to operate a vehicle on a roundabout. This information is available in printed form as well as on the internet.
The police department’s outreach officer is tasked to teach a series of classes to the public, free of charge, to explain face-to-face how to use the roundabout safely. It’s the responsible thing to do.
Officer Perez steps to the podium in front of more than 50 local drivers. Using a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate traffic flow, he explains the mechanics of the device carefully and specifically. A short video taken from a drone high above a similar roundabout shows how traffic should approach the roundabout, circle to the right in a counter-clockwise fashion. Each car entering the roundabout yields to oncoming traffic, enters the roundabout smoothly, and takes the appropriate exit when they reach it.
To turn right at the roundabout, a driver simply enters and takes the first exit. To go straight, take the second. To turn left they exit at the third opportunity, and to do a U-turn they drive around the entire circle, exiting at the same road they entered from.
Simple. Easy to understand. Eminently safe since all traffic flows in the same direction at roughly the same speed. The roundabout is a cake walk. Yay!
As the audience agrees this new traffic management device is an improvement, one driver speaks up.
“If I need to turn left, rather than drive all the way around the circle to the third exit, I think it would be better to just turn left,” says the confident driver.
“Well,” Officer Perez cautions, “that would put your car on a single lane road moving in the opposite direction of the other traffic. You can see how that would create a collision hazard.”
The audience begins to mumble agreement with Officer Perez.
“Not really,” answers the independent thinker. “If I turn left to get to that third exit, I’m only on the road through a quarter of the circle. If I go to the right I’m there for three quarters. My way limits the car’s distance on the roundabout. It’s a safer way of making a left turn.”
The sound of the crowd hardens with irritation.
Officer Perez searches for a better way to explain how dangerous it would be to turn left into opposing traffic. In an attempt to be diplomatic, but still get his point across he reiterates, “All traffic on the roundabout flows in a counter-clockwise direction. That’s what makes the roundabout a safer, quicker method of dealing with traffic. If all traffic follows this simple rule, traffic flows more quickly and with a higher level of safety.”
“I understand,” says the errant driver. “It’s still better to go to the left to get to that third exit. That’s what I’ve been doing since they put it in. I’m going to keep doing it that way. It’s better. I haven’t had any problems going to the left.”
This scenario, while fictitious, is a classic example of an individual who has been overly influenced by Frank Sinatra singing the classic song “My Way.” He (or she) had deluded themselves into thinking they can operate within an established system as a total independent.
“Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong,” is a lousy way to enter a roundabout, steering two tons of metal into the path of oncoming traffic simply because you think it’s okay — regardless of the protests of others.
And regardless of the published procedures you were supposed to learn and adhere to while at the wheel.
The same can be said for general aviation. While the FAA has established specific procedures for every conceivable departure, en route, or arrival, far too many of us have made the conscious decision to go our own way rather than comply with the rules as written.
I often fill the role of Officer Perez, speaking to groups of pilots and aviation enthusiasts. And like the scenario above, I encounter pilots who strenuously argue their right to do something totally unexpected in flight.
One pilot explained with great confidence that rather than extend his downwind to accommodate traffic on final, he circles over mid-field at pattern altitude. He insisted it was the better way to go. He continued to insist until a controller tapped him on the shoulder and said simply, “Stop doing that.”
Ensuring a high level of safety in flight is something we should be quite proud of. For me, My Way is the FAA’s way. It may not be the most original or creative method. It doesn’t massage my ego at all. But it ensures a level of safety that I’m pretty darned excited about.
Should we meet in the air you can always depend on me to do the prescribed thing. The expected thing. The safe thing. I hope I can count on you to do the same.
Because if even one of us decides to turn left on the roundabout while everybody else is going to the right, things get a bit more exciting than necessary for all of us.