The inanimate objects I feel most sorry for…

are traffic bollards. One kind in particular: the white plastic oblong that are placed around small roundabouts, make me feel wistful. If you are reading this outside of England, you maybe confused by several things mention in the first two sentences.

So let me explain. Roundabouts are Britain’s answer to the question ‘how should drivers behave when they reach a crossroads’. Our answer is a small bump in the road, which all of the drivers need to steer around, giving way to the right. In other countries, where maybe rugged individualism is more of the norm, traffic lights decide the conundrum of four carriageways meeting.

The lights act as symbolic instruction: stop; you go; now you go; stop; etc. Under the traffic light system, everyone gets their fair go, but any ideas of dangerous socialism are removed, because no one’s sharing the roadway. They also allow for a bit of healthy paranoia, as the lights are controlled by the government and it is open to debate whether they favour the lane on the left or right.

In England, we have traffic lights, but their role is to delay you unnecessarily when you’re trying to rush home to use the loo.

The English roundabout says much for the national character, based as it is on politely saying ‘no, you go first’. There’s nothing at the roundabout that prevents you speeding across, horn blaring and middle finger extended to all other road users. Well, technically, the Police are there to stop this, but as they are most likely to use the foot-down-finger-extended approach to driving around roundabouts, they rarely spend enough time at these junctions to observe whether other traffic is using the correctly.

This inherent politeness is best seen when four cars arrive at a roundabout at the same time. While the rule is give way to the right, as all of the drivers have the right of way but have another car user to their right, with a superior claim, each is caught in what can only be described as the English paradox. Having both the right to go first but also the deeply held belief that to do so would be terribly rude, some of these four way encounters can last well past teatime.

The traffic bollards, which I feel sorry for, are added to smaller roundabouts, to warn drivers that an intersection is coming up. Because that’s the thing about roundabouts, they are tucked into every corner of every town. While many tourists assume events like trooping the colour are ‘quintessentially English’, this is an event which happens infrequently, in one place, and is an excuse for the queen to buy a new hat. On the other hand, roundabouts litter the country, in many places occurring every 100 metres.

Ancient Britons had their hill forts, modern Britain has roundabouts.

The bollards are about a metre tall, white plastic boxes, clothed with yellow rectangles on each side, like a tabard. On the side which points towards the oncoming traffic, there’s a blue circle, within which sits a white arrow. All of this is in lovely municipal reflective material, managing to be shiny and dull at the same time. They take this form because their main function is reserved for the hours after dark.

It is once the sun goes down that I feel most sorry for them. When you walk past one of these minor roundabouts, the bollards stand there, glowing with a soft other-worldly light. Always four of them, each with its back to its companions, looking at the four roads that snake away, studded with street lights until they blink into black.

At night these sorry little bollards don’t look like bastions of safety, guarding hapless drivers. Instead, they look like small extra-terrestrials who have landed in Slough by mistake.

It is late and they are not sure where they are, so they stand at the crossroads, waiting for inspiration to strike them; for some sort of clue as to what to do next. They stand forlorn and a little perplexed.
Just like anyone who has suddenly come across a roundabout they didn’t expect.

Written in response to the dailypost prompt ‘Forlorn‘.


2 thoughts on “The inanimate objects I feel most sorry for…

  1. This is awesome! I really enjoyed the humour (can relate to need to get home and use the loo). I wonder if Doctor Who has ever had a script where the bollards ARE extraterrestrials waiting for instruction…hmmm…..


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