Going native in a roundabout sort of way

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Most Americans don't know much about the world. That, at least, is what we like to think. As Martin Bell said on the radio the other day, a country where the OJ Simpson trial was thought for about a year to be top news cannot be a country where news is taken seriously. And it seems self-evident that most Americans cannot know much about the world because more than half of them do not possess passports and therefore cannot even go and have a look at the world.

By these standards Raymond Seitz, until lately American ambassador to the UK and now doing a series of talks on Radio 4, is the kind of American you dread meeting. He is urbane, interesting, amusing and well-informed, and thus destroys all your favourite images of the American male as loud, competitive and ignorant of anywhere but America. Foreigners are generally the most perceptive observers of other countries - the most revered book on America is still that by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville - and some Americans who pop up on Radio 4 ( I think of Mr Michael Goldfarb) are pretty thought-provoking on the UK.

But I am puzzled by something that Mr Seitz said this very Monday. He said that of all the odd things in our traffic system it was not driving on the left or anything else that baffled him most - it was roundabouts. He could not see the point of roundabouts. Americans do not have roundabouts. They have other ways of organising traffic beside these strange nodal things like blood clots in the arterial system called roundabouts, with their mysterious protocol and infallible clogging effect. Why do we do it? Is it a hangover from a classical past, the past that gave us circuses and crescents? Is it something to do with our class system, all this giving way and doffing of caps? Is it because Americans are optimists and progress in a straight line, whereas the British are realists who have seen it all before and therefore think cyclically?

Well, no, Mr Seitz. It cannot be a British disease, for a start, as roundabouts are quite common on the Continent. In fact, I believe Basingstoke, which is sustained by a life system of roundabouts, is actually twinned with a huge roundabout near Darmstadt.

(Another British town riddled with roundabouts is Milton Keynes, but there may be a special reason for this. I was once told by one of the older inhabitants that the planning sessions for Milton Keynes took so long that the planners went through gallons of coffee, leaving lots of coffee mug rings on the master plans, each one of which was faithfully turned into a roundabout.)

The simple truth, I think, is that we have so many roundabouts in Britain because they are cheap to build. When a local council has a trouble spot where they should introduce traffic lights or a pedestrian crossing, they will often find that it is half a million pounds cheaper to form a small bump in the middle of the road, paint a few white lines round it and put up signs saying NEW ROAD SCHEME AHEAD.

This compares favourably with the equivalent scheme in Mr Seitz's homeland, where priority at a crossing goes to the man with the bigger gun, especially if he shoots his rival first. The American scheme may be cheaper, but the British scheme causes fewer deaths. Though I do think fondly of the Punch cartoon by, I think, Raymond Lowry which showed the end of a motorway and a large sign saying EXPERIMENTAL TRAFFIC SCHEME AHEAD. After passing the sign, all the cars followed the road to a cliff and poured over the top into the sea. Excellent idea!

Nevertheless, Mr Seitz is certainly right in pointing to the fact that we have a different driving culture from country to country. Indeed, it varies from region to region. When I first moved out of London, I couldn't help noticing that people were much more lackadaisical (I would now call it relaxed) in the country - no revving up at red lights, ready for a hint of green. They are also much more courteous, ever ready to reverse down a country lane to the last passing place and to thank each other for having done so, indeed to thank each other for thanking each other.

The only place where I was ever in a car which came to a large roundabout with a grass mound in the middle and drove straight up it and across the top was Ireland. More about the reasons for this weird episode tomorrow.