The rotary, a bottomless pit of human foibles

Driving into a rotary is like entering a buzz saw at high speed.

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    Fowl observation: A feral chicken pauses near a roundabout in Ditchingham, England, called the Chicken Roundabout because a colony of chickens has lived there for 50 years.
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It is reflective of my uneventful life that when a friend asked what was new up here in Maine, the only thing that came to mind was the new traffic rotary in Bangor.

In reality, this is no small potatoes. Rotaries are all but unknown in my state, so building one is an occasion of note. Normally, Mainers must travel to Boston for the white-knuckle experience of entering a buzz saw of traffic at high speed. For those unacquainted with the concept, a rotary is a tight, circular roadway designed to keep traffic moving along. The alternative, I presume, would be complicated intersections studded with stop lights. The rotary does away with this in favor of a continually flowing spinning wheel of cars and trucks, which rely entirely on the instincts of the drivers as to when one should enter and exit the rotary. A fair amount of courage is involved.

This entering part is the most treacherous, because it is like stepping into a current – once you're in, one has the feeling of being swept away. But the most important thing to remember is that rotaries rotate counterclockwise. When we got our rotary in Bangor, this was not pointed out to the initiates: On its inaugural day, I watched as the woman ahead of me edged into the rotary and drove off to the left – clockwise – against the flow of traffic. It's a tribute to the forbearance of Maine drivers that no one so much as honked at her. Rather, they allowed her to meander along, slowly weaving among the stopped drivers, until she found her exit point, where she cruised off (wondering, perhaps, why everybody else seemed to be going the wrong way).

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When cars first arrived on the American scene, newspapers published etiquettes for their use. Horses – drivers were advised – always had the right of way. (They still do.) But no such gentle advice exists for the use of the rotary. The result, from what I have seen, is something that would make an interesting installment for the hit TV show, "Survivor."

I use our new rotary every morning when I head to work. There are four feeder points for vehicles, and I always sense that I am entering a competition as I do my anxious two-step on the gas and brake before committing myself to the fray. I must admit that there is a sort of blood surge when I engage the rotary – not unlike the feeling I have when the puck is dropped at the beginning of a hockey game. The other drivers cease to be fellow travelers and become adversaries. It must be something primal that counsels, "You have staked your claim to seven seconds in the rotary, now defend it!" I try, but it's not easy. My understanding is that once a driver is in the rotary, vehicles at the feeder points must wait until they see an opening.

But Mainers have a quirky, shared misperception about yield signs, which they interpret to mean "accelerate." Thus, I have more than once had to come to a near stop during my transit through the rotary in order to avoid hitting another vehicle that had careered into the rotary without so much as a tip of the driver's hat.

The upshot of all this is that the rotary is an object of endless interest, for not a day goes by when I don't see somebody doing the following things: stopping while in the rotary to let other drivers enter (nice thought, but dangerous), losing their nerve and U-turning away from the rotary to seek another route, or making several circuits around the rotary because they don't know where to get off (as in the James Thurber story about the man who got stuck in a revolving door). The other day one of my student advisees approached me with a lament: He needed a topic for a sociology paper. His frustration was palpable, but I was able to calm him. I escorted him to my office window, which looks out onto the rotary. "Look," I said. "There's your topic. A bottomless pit of human foibles. A guaranteed 'A.' " He left my office beaming.

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