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Dispatches from the imagination of transportation engineers.

Geometry tells us that the traditional four-way intersection is inherently dangerous. When you plot all of the potential points of conflict on a diagram – and transportation engineers actually do this – it turns out that vehicles have 32 distinct opportunities to collide into one another at the nexus of two two-lane roadways. Cars can crash into each other while merging or diverging from a given lane. Then the worst action happens right in the middle of the interchange, at that perilous point where vehicles turn left across oncoming traffic.

There, the geometry gets even more gruesome. Cars colliding head-on, or at a right angle to each other, are much more likely to cause serious carnage than two vehicles merging at a shallower angle (as happens on a right-hand turn). This is what a traditional intersection looks like when you analyze it as a potential death trap:

Federal Highway Administration

With that geometry in mind, it becomes clear what we need in the holy grail of intersection design: a scheme that would eliminate left-hand turns while still enabling drivers to move in all four directions. The basic roundabout does this, with only eight relatively less harmful points of conflict:

The challenge is to translate that same idea onto much busier roads. You may already be familiar with the “Michigan Left,” also known as the “median U-turn,” which solves this problem by requiring drivers to pass through an intersection, make a u-turn and then re-approach it from the opposite direction, ultimately making a safer right-hand turn. The concept is also intended to improve traffic flow by eliminating that pesky left-turn cycle at the light:

The simple Michigan Left, though, only begins to tap the wilder dreams of transportation engineers. They’ve concocted some much more intricate intersection designs – and in a few cases actually built them – to improve road safety, save states money and generally stall the inevitable expansion of highways. John Sangster , a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech and an alternative intersection enthusiast, introduced us to several and pointed us to some spellbinding animations from the Applied Technology and Traffic Analysis Program at the University of Maryland (many thanks to researchers there for sharing these clips).

Meet, for instance, the Jughandle:

And the Superstreet (now gaining steam in North Carolina ):

And the Diverging Diamond (now in existence outside Springfield, Missouri ):

As you can imagine, these designs are not an easy sell. “It’s a two-fold sale that has to happen,” Sangster tells us. “We’re not going to build these if they’re not safe. We’re also not going to build them if they don’t work better.”

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