Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tickets talk, signs don't

Teach motorists the A, B, Cs of traffic circles

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One day in Toronto, city workers arrived on the lane near my house -- a rutted, narrow, curved path, heavily used by school children -- to take measurements so it could be smoothed and widened, eliminating the dirt shoulders.

I found the supervisor and questioned the logic of the plan, pointing out that cars already drove too fast down the lane, and they would speed up on a new lane, posing an even greater threat to children who would have to use the same cement surface as the vehicles.

"Well," he said brightly, "we'll just post a sign that says the speed limit is 30 kilometres an hour."

I pointed past him and asked: "You mean like the sign behind your head that says the speed limit is 15 kilometres an hour?"

The fellow did not seem to grasp the concept that putting up a sign was not going to change basic human behaviour -- and designing something to allow traffic to move faster was likely to make it worse.

It's a concept that the brains behind Winnipeg's new traffic circles don't seem to grasp either.

As a River Heights resident, I have listened to traffic officials explain how safe the new circles are, and how simple they are to use.

So how do they explain the fact that I have been involved in three near collisions at traffic circles newly installed on Grosvenor Avenue?

Actually, there is a simple explanation -- traffic circles don't cause collisions; people cause collisions.

And people don't change very easily.

All the planning that took place for the circles ignored the fact that many Winnipeggers don't know how to use them.

On paper, traffic circles are simple to navigate. Drivers approaching a circle are supposed to slow down, yield to any vehicle already in the circle, and be prepared to stop if necessary. There are new Yield signs and shiny yellow signs on the circles themselves with arrows pointing which direction to go.

In theory, the circles are an elegant way of keeping traffic -- motor vehicles and cycles alike -- moving.

But on Grosvenor, motorists are used to cruising straight down the street with few interruptions for stop signs.

Many still act the same way, driving through traffic circles as if they have the right of way to go straight down Grosvenor, ignoring traffic coming from side streets running north-south.

They should be yielding if a vehicle coming from their right or left is already at the traffic circle before they arrive. But they're not even looking left or right.

In all three of my near collisions, I had driven into a traffic circle only to see another vehicle bearing down on me along Grosvenor, screeching to a halt and cursing at me as if I were in the wrong.

Many drivers have adjusted to the circles, and are carefully navigating around them, considerate of their fellow motorists and alert for cyclists and pedestrians.

But the number of drivers who don't know what they're doing is high enough that I have started avoiding the circles if I can.

So here's a thought for Winnipeg's traffic brain trust:

-- If you want traffic circles to stay, how about getting out and actively telling motorists how to use them -- not by sending out flyers, but by standing on the street to stop rule breakers.

-- Put traffic cops out and they'll write 100 tickets a day just standing at the corner of Grosvenor and Waverley.

-- Better yet, give errant motorists warning notices for a few weeks until they know the rules.

-- Whatever you do, please don't depend on signs to change the way people drive.

How to Drive a Traffic Circle

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2010 A12


Updated on Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 11:06 AM CDT: Adds "how to" document.

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.


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