ExpatCH: Driving in Switzerland
Bill Harby explains what fighter pilots and Swiss drivers have in common and how roundabouts are connected to Existentialism.
I've been doing a lot of driving recently, and am happy to say that I am no longer terrified of causing an international fender-bender incident. Now I know whether a certain sign means I am going the wrong way on a dead-end street. Although, I'm pretty sure I was doing exactly that the other day on a street with alarming red and blue signs apparently telling me not to proceed and not to go in the opposite direction.
Negotiating Swiss streets requires speed-reading. There are signs over the road and beside the road, and even signs written right on the road. It's kind of like playing 3D chess. Fighter pilots are required to have superb 'three-dimensional situational awareness'. Ditto for European drivers, for whom the next piece of life-saving information could be written virtually anywhere.
My favourite European traffic device is the ubiquitous rond-point. This is a circle of roadway that appears at many intersections. Instead of having to hit the brakes at a stop sign (which back home you have to do even if there's no other vehicle within hundreds of metres), in Switzerland drivers can decide for themselves whether or not it's safe to glide into the circle and proceed to their chosen connecting street. Even better, a rond-point is often covered with a mound of beautiful flowers or an interesting mosaic of bricks or stonework, allowing traffic to freely flow around it like chi around a lovely mandala.
Indeed, in the USA we sometimes call the rond-point a 'traffic-calming circle', or a roundabout. But mostly we don't call it anything because it mostly doesn't exist in our country.
In Hawaii, my previous home, there was little that was calming about such circles. When the county government announced plans to put in only the second roundabout in the state, certain concerned citizens all but mounted an insurrection, sending out a public letter calling on their neighbours to resist this crazy foreign idea, and instead 'order up four stop signs... and tell the mayor and the Neighborhood Board to go away'.
But why do Americans have such antipathy towards this obviously efficient and graceful traffic device?
One day a few years ago, after considerable rond-point traffic observation from the vantage point of a Parisian sidewalk café (eventually festooned with carefully arranged empty wine glasses standing in for traffic cones), I figured out why Europeans love the roundabout and Americans loathe it. Europeans love it because they get to make their own Existential choice whether to brake or play poulet with that tilting loaded truck heading around toward them. It's that liberté thing. In the US we prefer a good sturdy stop sign because it's completely clear what we're supposed to do. Plus, it gives us excellent supporting evidence for our personal injury lawsuit.
In Peseux, the village just downhill from my house, there's a place where two rond-points nearly touch each other. Together they form a sort of figure-eight. Or an infinity sign. I have to admit that this arrangement is rather too deep for me to comprehend yet. So tomorrow I plan to drive around both of them until things are clarified – or until I'm chased down by a cop. But I'm sure that won't be a problem. Certainly we'll both be very calm.
Bill Harby is an award-winning writer, editor and photographer based in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and Volcano, Hawai‘i. Yes, he loves chocolate and fondue, but raclette and Heidi make him nauseous.
Published 2012; updated August 2015.
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