COVID-19 restrictions are disappearing and France is expecting another one million Canadians to visit the country this year. Many will arrive after a lengthy flight, collect their luggage and clear customs at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, then climb into a rental car. Minutes later, they’ll suddenly find themselves immersed in a stream of French drivers circling around a traffic circle or rond-point. And once they’ve escaped that first traffic circle, they’ll immediately find themselves in a second, and a third, and in all likelihood, yet another.
Welcome to France, and the first of more than 30,000 traffic circles, the multilane roundabouts that challenge visiting drivers to learn new rules, new signs, a new language. They also provide no chance whatsoever to just stop and figure out where you’re going.
It is an item of faith in France that the roundabout was invented in Paris in 1907. The goal of its creator, the architect and urban planner Eugène Hénard, was to better manage the horse-and-carriage traffic throughout Paris. His first roundabout was at Place de l’Étoile in Paris, (since renamed Place Charles-de-Gaulle) where multiple lanes of circulating cars, motorbikes, vans and buses still circle around the Arc de Triomphe.
More specifically, these drivers battle for supremacy over 12 unmarked traffic lanes where cars entering the circle from the right have priority over everyone else. The result is legendary chaos and massive traffic jams.
Regardless of where traffic circles were invented, it was in Britain, not France, where they first became popular, with an explosion of construction in the 1950s and 60s, and a rethinking of how they functioned. It was the British who decided that incoming traffic should yield to those already on the circle. It was the success of this improvement that led to the adoption of the new British design in France.
The first French version of the “English roundabout” was opened in 1976 in Quimper, near Brittany’s Atlantic coastline. The rond-point’s official entry into the French Highway Code happened in 1983, the same year that decentralization moved much of town planning to local governments.
These town and village governments embraced the roundabout with enthusiasm. Since gaining popularity in the 1980s and 90s in France, roundabouts have been adopted in every corner of the country. And civic pride has led to another French tradition: the sculptures placed in the middle of the traffic circles. From the beautiful to the bizarre, these emblems of local pride have not only become important landmarks for lost tourists, but have led to websites, documentaries and Pinterest groups celebrating – or mocking – these roadside artworks.
The modern rules for French roundabouts are simple: Entering traffic must yield to the vehicles already circling. Once you’ve entered, keep to the inside, left-hand lane, with your left-hand-turn signal activated. Once you approach your exit, switch your signal to the right and move to the outside, right-hand lane, then exit. For drivers used to traffic lights and street corners, it can be nerve-racking to figure out which of the three, four, or even five exits you want, before you can change lanes and escape.
All of this happens while you’re watching both rear view mirrors and trying to spot a directional sign that almost never matches what your GPS is telling you. Having a spouse to act as navigator is a big help. (My wife Susan says that depends on which spouse is providing the navigation.)
Roundabouts aren’t just another French oddity – they’re actually a solution to a few problems that are faced by every town and city.
They completely eliminate stop-and-go traffic. Instead of dozens of cars sitting with their engines pumping out exhaust fumes at every red light, traffic moves constantly into and out of intersections. And because they do away with the need for stop lights or advanced left-turn signals, infrastructure maintenance costs are dramatically reduced. For small towns and villages, this saving is a valuable advantage.
Most importantly, though, roundabouts turn out to offer significant advantages in traffic safety. Every car entering a traffic circle has to slow down, so cars, trucks and buses move more slowly than usual. There are no red lights, so there are no drivers who accelerate through the intersection on a yellow. Deadly 90-degree collisions are a rarity in France. And because everyone moves in a counter-clockwise direction, and exits to the right, there’s little chance of cars appearing out of nowhere from your blind spot.
The result, according to a 2018 report by the European Commission, which examined 44 studies where junctions where converted to roundabouts, is a 41-per-cent reduction in traffic accident injuries and a 65 per cent reduction in fatal accidents.
In addition, a World Economic Forum report from December found the United States is saving lives and energy costs by replacing lights with roundabouts. It also notes that France has by far the most roundabouts per capita, about double the number per capita of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“Here’s a controversial idea that turns conventional thinking about road safety on its head: traffic lights cause accidents, increase pollution and we’d be better of without them,” starts the report.
Still, when your jet-lagged self is suddenly dealing with multiple roundabouts, you’ll appreciate the two big secrets to manoeuvring around them. First, it’s okay to circle two or even three times until you know where you’re going. Second, in the event you take the wrong exit, in all likelihood there’s another roundabout just ahead, so it’s easy to double back to where you got it wrong.
Barry Rueger is a writer living in Alençon, France.