Speed Humps vs Traffic Circles

speed humps and traffic circles -

Disclaimer: The viewpoints that follow are the musings of the author intended to offer food for thought.

I recently upped sticks and moved 50km to a new town. I am loving it here and often wonder why I didn’t
make the move sooner. However, there is one thing that caught my attention from day one – there are a lot
of traffic circles here. I mean an absolute epidemic of them so that on a ‘straight’ road of less than a
kilometer, you are likely to encounter at least six if not more. So much so that Angela, Pamela, Sandra, and
Rita along with Tina, Mary and Jessica from Lou Bega’s, Mambo No 5 became mere myths thanks to the
constant GPS interruptions on my car sound system offering directions around yet another circle. It’s insane!

But is it really?

Recently, I had cause to return to the town I moved from and as I inched and wobbled over one annoying
(and oversized) and often badly signposted speed bump after another, I suddenly saw the brilliance of traffic
circles aka roundabouts versus speed bumps/humps.

Because I’m a curious cat and always love to know what came from where, let’s take a quick look at the
history of each and who is to blame for the scourge…. erm, I mean…to be applauded for their clever traffic
calming invention.

We’ll start with the speed bump/hump

It is believed that the first appearance of speed humps came into being in 1906 in Chatham, New Jersey
(USA) when the New York times reported that the municipality planned to raise the crosswalks by five
inches in order to slow motor vehicle traffic so as to provide further safety for pedestrians crossing the
roads. At the time, the average vehicle’s top speed was around 48km/h (30mph). Pretty hilarious when you
consider that 120 years later cars are zooming around on highways at legal speeds of 120km/h. However, the
difference between then and now is the braking distance. Cars of old had extremely poor braking capabilities
whereas now a car travelling at 60km/h has an average braking speed of 6.87 seconds.

Back to who is responsible for the speed bump.

Arthur Holly Compton, physicist and noble prize winner (1927) who came up with the design for what he
called ‘traffic control bumps’ 1953, is the culprit. But it took a further forty-seven years after Chatham
raised their pedestrian crossings before speed bumps as we now know them came into widespread being.
Forty-seven years! And here we sit in 2022, the age of instant coffee and fast food, whinging about the
slow progress of road maintenance and enhancement because it may have taken a year or two longer than

And how about the traffic circle aka roundabout? Where did that circular piece of road engineering spring

Traffic circles, or roundabouts as they are known across the world, have been with us for centuries. Think
the Circus in Bath, Somerset, England (1768), the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France (1780) or
Monument Circle in Indianapolis, Indiana (1821). That last one brings to mind the Indy 500. Guess they
really like their big circles over there.

Moving on.

These first roundabouts, however, were huge and designed as a means to regulate enormous traffic flow. As
a result, they weren’t very widely used at all. In fact, it was only in the 1960’s when Frank Blackmore, a
British airman and traffic engineer, on behalf of the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory developed and
invented the ‘mini roundabout’ that the roundabout we are all familiar with today, came into being.

So, there we have the history of where each of these traffic calming devices came from. Next, I got to
thinking about the pros and cons of each of them and their impact on road users.

Let’s start with speed bumps/humps.

The pros:
Yeah, yeah, we know, they force traffic to slow down in order to navigate the ‘obstacle’ of the hump. This
we cannot deny.

The cons:
It has been noted that there can be an increase in traffic noise as drivers are forced to decelerate approaching
a speed hump and then accelerate once they’ve passed it.

Believe me, having had two such ‘mountainous’ obstacles in the road outside of the house where I used to
live, I can attest to this. Not to mention the obnoxious clattering and clanking of trucks (the ones that haul
goods) awkwardly waddling over them that wakes you in the middle of the night certain that the Autobots
and Decepticons are waging war right outside of your house.

Speed humps also create a greater risk for damage to the undercarriage of low-profile vehicles such as sports
cars due to the nature of their low clearance design.

This is another con with which I am personally familiar. For years I owned and rode a 1981 Yamaha 750cc
Virago. Absolutely loved that beautiful machine! However, due to its low-slung exhaust pipe, navigating
speed humps without scraping chrome was an absolute nightmare.

And here we have what I believe can become a downright dangerous situation - Often, when approaching a
speed hump, either the advance warning sign is missing, or, the painted markings on them is so worn so as
to be barely visible.

Hit a speed hump at any speed without being given the chance to slow down and not only do you risk the
rims and undercarriage of your vehicle you also risk having your coccyx slammed into your ribs and your
tonsils shoot out of your nose. Now, imagine that you’re a cyclist, or motorcyclist? There is an honest-to-
God danger of flying off your beloved two-wheels and not only having your skin peeled your body like a
potato scraped with a blunt peeler, but also of breaking bones and potentially…death. Scary, isn’t it?

So, let’s have a look at the pros and cons of the traffic circle/roundabout.

As expected, traffic slows in order to navigate the circle ahead. However, this seems a much more natural
and genteel approach. Here where I am now living, there is pleasant ebb and flow to traffic as we approach
and leave the circles. Almost, like a waltz. Does that sound crazy? Probably. But it is a whole lot better than
the jerk stop-start manner of dealing with speed bumps.

Next, unless one drives straight across the often-raised circle at the center, there is very little possibility of
damaging the undercarriage of a low-profile vehicle. Let’s face it, I have seen more than one vehicle plough
straight across a circle when there is no side-on traffic waiting to enter. The culprits are usually those big
vehicles best suited to hunting Wildebeest in the bush. The same ones who park on pavements just because
they can. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not slamming the 4x4 or the big SUVs. I drive one. And if we’re being
honest with ourselves, those of us that do, like to flaunt our abundance of undercarriage clearance.

Another mark in favour of traffic circles is that badly signposted traffic circles are less of a death trap for
motorcyclists and cyclists as they can easily navigate their way around the circle without winding up in full
body traction.

Surely, there must be cons to traffic circles.

Only one that I can think of - Not everyone seems to understand how to make proper use of one. As a result,
minor bumper bashing, wild one-fingered gesticulations and colourful language are likely to ensue to either
annoy (or worst-case scenario incite road rage) if you’re an unfortunate participant or amuse should you be
an observer.

So, there you have it. Speed bumps and traffic circles. Love ‘em, or hate ‘em, they’re here to stay.

As for this motorist? I’ll take a gentle turn around a circle over a rude bone rattling bumble over a speed