Are U.S. intersections contributing to firefighter injuries?

Radically changing how we control vehicle traffic could improve firefighter safety

While rummaging through a used book store several years ago, I bought a book based on the cover alone. It was a great read, well written, well researched and really dug into what makes humans tick.

When I finished, I recommended it to several friends. My book shelves were full, I'd read it, "just keep it, you'll love it," I told my friends. It came back, unread. I even went as far as to slyly leave it behind at a holiday party — yes, it found its way home.

So yesterday as I read about yet another fire truck crash, this one involving a motorist who blew a red light, there sat my 'bad penny' of a book staring back at me.

"Traffic: Why we Drive the Way we do (and What It Says About Us)" was written by Tom Vanderbilt in 2008. I dusted it off and was grateful it was still hanging around my bookcase.

In the book, Vanderbilt cites four-way stoplight- or stop sign-controlled intersections as accounting for half of the vehicle crashes in the United States. He advocates the roundabout intersection, seen in many European countries, as the safer alternative.

He goes on to cite a study that converted 24 four-way intersections into roundabouts. Those intersections saw a drop of 40 percent for all crashes, 76 percent for injury crashes and 90 percent for fatal crashes.

And reducing overall crashes reduces the number of crashes involving fire trucks, ambulances and chief's buggies. That's a good thing.

It's counterintuitive to think that a free-flowing roundabout would be safer than a stoplight-controlled intersection. But as Vanderbilt points out, and my experience driving in England confirms, navigating a roundabout requires drivers to drive — in other words, pay attention to what they are doing and what's going on around them. Throw in manual transmissions and much of a driver's "free time" will be eliminated.

Going further down the path of driver behavior, Vanderbilt looked at a case study in a Danish community that switched a busy pedestrian, bicycle and auto intersection to a roundabout and removed all barriers and signs. They too found the new set up to be safer and speculated that cultural norms are stronger behavior regulators than signs. One example he used was that you never see a sign at a fast-food restaurant telling people not to cut in line. It's the same principal with motorists yielding to pedestrians and bikes — it would be interesting to see if that extended to emergency vehicles.

Would more roundabouts in the United States improve firefighter safety?

It's not a question I expect to see garner national attention or dominate the fire service dialogue. I can imagine those opposing the idea saying it treats the symptom not the cause, and that large, capital projects are slow, expensive and hyper-local.

Yet, I think there's a place for the roundabout in U.S. towns and cities. I think they would improve firefighter safety not just while en route, but because fewer vehicle crashes reduces firefighters' exposure to roadside risks.

The notion of redesigned intersections warrants discussion with local and state officials when road projects are planned — that's the time to get involved.

Like the European fire helmet I wear, a European intersection may look odd, but brings added safety. It certainly warrants more discussion among fire service leaders. So please, tell me what you think.

About the author

Rick Markley is editor-in-chief of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, a volunteer firefighter and fire investigator. He serves on the board of directors of and is actively involved with the International Fire Relief Mission, a humanitarian aid organization that delivers unused fire and EMS equipment to firefighters in developing countries. He holds a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's of fine arts. He has logged more than 10 years as an editor-in-chief and written numerous articles on firefighting. He can be reached at

  1. Tags
  2. Safety
  3. Vehicle Safety
  4. Fire Department Management
  5. Fire Trucks
  6. Fire apparatus
  7. road-side safety

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