Editorial: Round and round and round

To just slightly paraphrase the old Ted Mack Amateur Hour, “Round and round and round it goes, and where it stops no one knows.”

Those words were ritual in the early days of television, repeated every week when the order of contestant appearances on Mack’s talent show was determined by a spinning wheel.

The refrain came to mind last week while watching mystified motorists trying to make sense of roundabout protocol in the new traffic circle being installed on Arnold Drive.

The roundabout is now round, with painted traffic lanes, but the circle itself is mostly a hole in the ground awaiting a curb, landscaping and hopefully some sort of monument to Hap Arnold, the five-star general who founded the Army Air Corps, retired to Sonoma and was subsequently honored with his name on one of the Valley’s two principal thoroughfares.

Hap Arnold the pilot might have enjoyed an aerial view of confused motorists hesitating to enter the roundabout, pausing at one of the entry points as if timidly approaching a spinning carousel. Last week, some novice roundabout drivers turned into the circle and then made a complete stop as other cars entered ahead of them. One driver was witnessed stopping and starting at each of the four entrances before driving back the way she had come.

As the first roundabout in the Valley, the Arnold Drive installation seems to be a unique experience for many. But it pales in comparison to some of the world’s famous – and infamous – traffic circles. Notable among them is the one circling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, from which a dozen boulevards radiate, each one contributing flow to a chaos of orbiting autos following one cardinal rule – cars entering the circle have the right-of-way, which means that cars exiting the circle are frequently trapped along the inner lanes until they make a desperate dash across the grain of the flow.

Interestingly, the Arc de Triomphe is the one place in Paris where no-fault accidents are the rule. If there’s a fender-bender inside the circle, both drivers are automatically at fault and the insurance claim is evenly split.

The world’s most stunning (and craziest) roundabout may have been the one that circled the Roman Coliseum until it was closed to vehicular traffic in August to make Rome’s greatest ruin more accessible to pedestrians and less threatened by exhaust fumes.

New York’s Columbus Circle, at the southwest corner of Central Park, was the first roundabout in America, and Washington, D.C. is full of them, once including a traffic circle around the Lincoln Memorial.

So the Arnold Drive roundabout is modest by comparison and should be utterly simple to navigate if drivers follow one simple rule – yield.

Unlike Parisians at the Arc de Triomphe, Sonoma Valley motorists, entering their only traffic circle, must only remember to yield to cars already in the circle. And once you’re in the circle, don’t stop; move to the outside toward the exit you want and drive on out. Don’t even stop if there are emergency vehicles approaching – drive out of the circle and pull over.

It’s that easy: look left, yield and go.

If you want a visual, just Google “how to drive a roundabout” and take your pick of countless video clips.