Lost and Round-about
“There’s Big Ben, kids, Parliament!” says Chase, growing increasingly deranged as he completes lap after mind-boggling lap, unable to merge over to the outside lane to exit the roundabout.
In Vail, it might be, “Hey kids, there’s the Vail Village Amoco, there’s Panda City, and … oh, look: I-70.” Over and over: Amoco, Panda City, interstate, Amoco, Panda City. On the other hand, a driver trapped in one of the valley’s ubiquitous roundabouts is just as liable to swerve into whatever exit he needs to take regardless of where the other cars are.
But despite the confusion and the occasional congestion, don’t you just feel more European circumnavigating a roundabout? More sophisticated? A little culturally superior to the drudges who have to deal with stoplights?
“I know it sounds stupid, but yes I do,” says Noel Bennett, a snowboarder from Boulder who frequently drives up to Vail. “I love driving in Europe.”
The overwhelming consensus from locals and out-of-towners is that roundabouts, as a concept, are terrific. In practice, however, they can be a little sketchy, Bennett says.
“If people learned to drive though them, it would be good,” he says. “Take me: I stopped right in the middle of one of the roundabouts and, like an idiot, I tried to turn right from the left lane.”
“Some people are confused,” adds Jeff Connell, a skier from Denver. “But aren’t the roundabouts supposed to cater to the foreign crowd?”
Some would argue that one’s first experience in a Vail Valley roundabout – even as a passenger – sows the seed for one’s future relationship with traffic circles – a fate from which one cannot deviate.
“I was hung over and slept through it,” says Erin Partain, a skier from Colorado Springs who made her first trip to Vail this weekend.
Note to Colorado State Patrol: Partain was a passenger.
Whether more worldly or totally boring, there is etiquette to slipping into and slipping out of the roundabouts, says Vail police Sgt. Mike Knox.
First of all, when you’re preparing to enter a roundabout, cars already in the roundabout always have the right of way. No exceptions – not even for a hurried local who’s drinking coffee, yakking on a cell-phone, fussing with the radio and changing into ski boots all at the same time.
Secondly, when there are two lanes entering the roundabout, such as in Main Vail, West Vail and Avon, the most critical tip – aside from yielding and checking for pedestrians in the crosswalks – is location, location, location.
If there isn’t a sign, a driver should pick a lane based on where they plan to exit, Knox says.
“If you’re going to take the first right turn, you probably want to be in the far right lane,” Knox says. “If you want to go around the roundabout and go another direction, you probably want to position yourself in the left lane.”
The Web site for the Avon Police Department – www. Avonpolice. org/html/ driving_roundabouts.html – also offers some tips.
n Slow down: speeds of15 mph or less are adequate in a roundabout.
n Yield, but once in the roundabout, don’t stop.
n Stagger vehicles to give yourself and other drivers more room.
n Look for signs, and exit that direction.
n Check rear-view mirrors and use turn signals when exiting
n If you miss your exit, go around again.
n Bicyclists should follow the same rules.
One last piece of etiquette: Knox asked us locals – the expert circumnavigators – to give out-of-towners a little slack in the roundabouts during the busier times of the year.
“If you’re a local, you should be very courteous to our guests,” Knox says. “Right now, there are a lot of people here from out of town who don’t know how to drive the roundabouts. Locals should be very patient.”
Billy Doran, of Edwards, says it’s not the roundabouts that are the problem, it’s some of the drivers.
“There’s still a cell-phone issue – cell phones and giant SUVs,” Doran says.
The roundabouts also catch some out-of-towners off-guard. While some visitors may be sharp and savvy in their hometowns – in their natural environments, that is – some take a mental vacation when they go on vacation and have to navigate a roundabout, Doran says.
“A lot of people who visit on vacation diminish their thinking to some extent – but that’s part of being on vacation,” Doran says.
The Main Vail roundabout, built in the early 90s, replaced a rather notorious four-way stop sign. The roundabout is a vast improvement, says local Joel Heath, who has stood in the middle of many roundabouts holding sings for various political campaigns – including that of his father Rollie Heath, who ran unsuccessfully for governor last fall.
“I think they’re phenomenal,” Heath says. “You used to have to plan to wait 20 to 25 minutes to get through the four-way stops.”
Timid drivers are the ones who get flustered, he says.
“Aggressive people do better; it’s the tentative people who get in trouble,” Heath says. “It’s amazing people can smoke a cigarette, put on makeup, talk on a phone and make it through.”
Incoming Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis, who also stood in the middle of many roundabouts holding her campaign signs last fall, says traffic circles are the perfect places to be seen, but candidates can cause some problems for drivers.
“It didn’t help that we were standing there,” Bettis says. “We caused them to stop.”
Brian and Natasha Rodgers, skiers who frequently visit Vail from their home in Maryland, say Vail’s roundabouts move traffic more efficiently than anything else.
And for those who carp and whine about traffic getting out of control in the valley, the Rodgers say Vail has among the least amount of traffic of all the ski towns they’ve visited, including those surrounding Lake Tahoe on the border of California and Nevada.
“I don’t think there’s a better ski town,” Brian Rodgers says. “Traffic through ski towns can be terrible, but I’ve never had a bad experience in Vail.”
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at