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  • Writer's pictureDidier Bahuaud

Traffic circles open gate to other dimension

France recently won the World Cup in soccer, but we won’t gloat about that. We don’t have to. After all, it’s obvious we had the greatest team and that everyone else didn’t cut it — especially the Brits. Too much tea and warm beer.

Forever overachievers, the French have earned another well-deserved trophy: Biggest Ego On The Planet. Correction: That’s the U.S.; France won last year. The prize France won this year is Worst Drivers of the New Millennium. Michigan came in a close second.

This is especially ironic, considering how difficult it is to get a driver’s license in France. Before they can even dream of taking a driving test, the French spend thousands of Euros on classes where they learn to raise certain fingers, pronounce descriptive words about lineage and honk a split-second before traffic lights turn green. Despite all that training, the French drive as though they’ve burned the rule book instead of sleeping on it.

There are a couple of extenuating circumstances, however.

First, France’s narrow streets force drivers to compete for space. It’s all about who manages to squeeze through first, which come to think of it, is an overdone stereotype. To answer that space problem, car manufacturers literally have had to reinvent the wheel.

Forget tank-sized Hummers, and think “letter A.” That’s what Mercedes’ Smart looks like, and other European companies followed suit.

The car fits two passengers only; the optional touring package adds an engine. The letter-on-wheels fits just about anywhere and makes parking a breeze in Paris, a city where sidewalks are often fair game.

Second, France suffers from a traffic woe known as a “rond point.” This roughly translates as “driving around in circles until I can find the exit or someone smashes into me.”

People will say I exaggerate, but in this case, the truth is much better than anything I could come up with.

This … let’s call it “traffic circle” … is basically a game of driving roulette in which drivers bounce between lanes, forever wondering who has the right of way as they shuttle counter-clockwise in search of an exit. There are stories of unlucky drivers who vanished without a trace, probably swallowed within a rip in the space-time continuum. You sometimes see their pictures on wine bottles.

In theory, drivers are supposed to slow down as they enter the circle of doom. In practice, however, one spin is enough to reaffirm your faith in whatever religion you favor. Thrill-seekers will particularly enjoy the Place de l’Etoile, where the Arc of Triumph stands guard over the Champs Elysées.

Here, 12 streets vomit traffic in a constant flow of screeching tires and roaring diesel engines. The road features no lanes and bears no markings of any sort. It’s a free-for-all of Parisian proportions, a textbook application of snootiness. Cars 30 deep turn and turn, fighting to get in, fighting to get out. Drivers cut in without signaling and slow down suddenly to avoid another vehicle racing at right angles to the flow. Frayed nerves are guaranteed, or your money back.

All I can say is, let’s hope the French stick to exporting wine only. Michigan roads are bad enough.

— Published in "The Sedalia Democrat," July 2000

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