One of the most interesting but also most boring books I have read in recent years is called The Design of Roundabouts by Mike Brown. From it, I learned that the British became the main champion of this form of junction as a result of detailed research in the Sixties and Seventies. Brown's erudite book is itself full of sentences such as: "The saturated capacity results of entry and circular flow Qk and Qz were plotted and a regression fitted, giving the entry/circulating relationship (see figure 4.3)."
There are half as many crashes at roundabouts as there are at traffic-light junctions and most that do occur are likely to be glancing blows at a slow pace rather than head-on at speed. (Joe Moran explained other merits of roundabouts in last week's NS Observations.) However, one feature of roundabouts is that you frequently do tangle with your fellow motorist.
I can remember, when learning to drive, how my instructor would park me a hundred yards short of a certain mini-roundabout, and psyche me up to my approach. "Just relax," he would say. "Remember the rule: give way to the right, and watch what's happening as you draw up."
Given that I always made some sort of error, my fortunes at the roundabout all depended on what sort of motorist I came up against, the vital factors being the English class system, aggravated by the ever-increasing anger of the British on the roads. A roundabout, I decided, was like that game where two people simultaneously make the shape of a stone, paper or scissors with one hand: stone beats scissors, scissors beat paper, and so on; while two scissors, for example, produce a draw.
Let's take the last scenario.
If I, a scruffy man in a Skoda Fabia, am not given way to by another scruffy man in a Skoda Fabia waiting at the road to my left, I am inclined to let him off. He's just like me, I will reason, so he can't be too bad. I might let him go with a quick: "Want to get yourself some specs, mate!" Even if I do clash with someone pretty much like myself at a roundabout, his response is by definition going to be proportionate, so nothing exciting is going to happen.
This week, I saw a man in an estate car, who could have been a solicitor, have a contretemps about the right of way at a roundabout with one of those spoilt north London mothers in a four-wheel drive: "We can get out and discuss it, if you like," he called to her in a reasonable tone, and it seemed likely that she would take him up on it, until the clamour of horns from behind became insufferably loud.
The people who make me most angry at roundabouts, apart from the obviously very rich, are men in white vans. I do not accord them the deference I would extend to the pure working class (in the unlikely event of my seeing a coal-blackened miner wobbling towards a mini-roundabout in Highgate, I'd let him get away with anything) because I always take them to be Thatcherite and violent with it.
I was so inflamed by the actions of one white-van man at a roundabout that I chased after him and drew alongside.
"Don't you know the rule?" I yelled. "It's give way to the fucking r . . ." At which point I realised that it was he who had been approaching me from my right, and that I should have given way to him.
I drove off quickly, muttering something like: "Just remember next time," amazed that the man hadn't reacted at all.
But I suppose that roundabouts are all part of the rich texture of British life. As a man from the Department for Transport's research laboratory in Crowthorne, Berkshire, once put it to me: "Somebody might pull out a bit early. You toot your horn, he shakes his fist, and everybody's happy, as it were."
Well, if not happy then still alive, at any rate.