Generations of Augusta teenagers had their learning to drive baptism of fire within seconds of their driving career as they left the parking lot of the old flatiron building and plunged into the Cony traffic circle.

Some of the first words of advice I ever got from my high school driving instructor?

“Go. Go GO! NO! Stop! STOP!”

That’s the refrain every time I drive through one now, except without the no and the stops. Go go go. It’s the only way to get around the rotaries.

He who hesitates is lost.

Augusta’s traffic circles were put in on either side of the Memorial Bridge in 1949 when the bridge was finished.

They are legendary. We write about them in the newspaper (lots of accidents!), bloggers blog about them, any business or resident in Augusta giving directions uses them “Go three-quarters of the way around the rotary…” They’re even listed in Wikipedia under the “traffic circles” entry.

When two new traffic circles opened in north Augusta a few weeks ago to help traffic better flow off the highway and to the new MaineGeneral hospital, they were welcomed into the Augusta traffic circle family. Hey, we know you guys, come on and join the fun.

Except they’re not calling them traffic circles, they’re calling them roundabouts. And supposedly, there’s a difference.

Roundabouts are supposed to slow down traffic, as opposed to rotaries, which were designed to keep it moving, according to Stephen Landry, traffic engineer for the Maine Department of Transportation.

Landry is the go-to guy on rotaries, roundabouts, circles — whatever — and is quoted liberally in all traffic circle-related stories in Maine newspapers.

“A rotary is typically a circular roadway that has a very large radius and is built to facilitate speed going through the circle area,” Landry told Kennebec Journal reporter Betty Adams a couple weeks ago. “The way that each leg comes into the circle is kind of tangential, so you don’t have to slow down a lot to enter or go around it.”

“A roundabout has a much smaller radius. As the roadways come into the circle, they’re aimed to the center, forcing the motorists to take a right turn into the circle, and they’re banked to naturally slow drivers down.”

He may know the technical aspects, but in Augusta we know our circles.

While there may be engineering differences to the two new circles, and they certainly are very pretty, most Augustans approach the concept from a different angle. Slow down? No. Go go go.

About a year ago, Adams did a feature on a young man from Readfield, Nathan Belz, who’s getting his doctorate in traffic studies. Like a true Augusta-area native, he likes his traffic circles.

“They’re much more efficient (than traffic lights),” he told Adams. “If you come on one in the middle of the night, you don’t to wait for the lights to change.”

Go go go.

Rotary-hardened Augustans approach the circles with gusto — it’s virtually impossible to get across the city without going through one or both. There are legends of life-long Augustans who pick their way through the cities’ byzantine maze of back roads in order to avoid them. Augusta’s version of subway dwellers. Do they really exist? Who knows.

We sneer at out-of-staters and folks in from the country who wait forever to make their move, timidly inch into the circle or — the worst sin — stop, befuddled, mid-rotary blinker flashing as we swerve and dodge to keep from hitting them.

Go go go!

Landry told Adams that when Cony Circle was reconstructed a few years ago to put all those helpful arrows, lines and medians in (let’s face it, taking a lot of the fun out), 15 feet was also taken from its diameter, dropping it from rotary (go go go!) status to roundabout status.

Wait. What?

Still looks like a rotary to me.

Augusta’s other in-town traffic circle, Memorial Circle, still has the official rotary distinction, but the state is trying to wreck its rotary cred.

“Memorial Circle is a rotary, but we striped it to make it look more like a roundabout,” Landry told Adams. “We’re trying to get people into the mode of driving it like a roundabout.”

After nearly 40 years of driving it like a rotary, I just don’t see that happening. Instead of driving the rotaries like a roundabout, I prefer to approach the roundabouts like a rotary.

I learned to drive in Augusta, what else can I do but go go go?

Recent experience with the new rotaries is that yes, people do slow down. My theory is it’s because they’re not sure yet where they’re going. Did I mention they’re also really pretty? Hard to not want to take in the scenery.

Other than that, you can plunge in just fine.

Blogger Greg Linscott posted a list under the heading, “You know you’re from Maine when …” It includes “you drive the Augusta traffic circle without slowing down.”

Now there are four.

Go go go!

Maureen Milliken is news editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected]. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.

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