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Alphabetical turns

Food for Thought

A recent proposal to introduce something known as J-turns on Iowa’s busier highways seems to have brought about a great many more objections than anticipated. I suppose Iowans, who think the state is pretty much okay just as it is, don’t like to see any dramatic changes, be it weather, politics, fishing regulations or highway designs.
While it seems confusing, a J-turn is just a fancy way of turning left. Rather than turning left across a busy intersection, a driver turns right and proceeds to a less busy stretch of highway where he makes a U-turn which will take him back to the intersection where he is then able to go straight ahead in the direction he wants to go. He still has to cross all the lanes of traffic going in both directions, but that dreaded left turn at the intersection is eliminated. It is replaced, of course, by the time- and distance-consuming U-turn, but it is far less expensive to add that J-turn lane than to construct a land-hogging cloverleaf in order to facilitate left turning drivers.
The idea isn’t very new, it’s been at least 10 years since my sisters and I visited Milwaukee and encountered our first J-turn. The sister who was driving at the moment was a little confused at first but soon understood the principle of this unfamiliar tactic. I, being geographically inept and inclined to get lost in parking lots, was very happy indeed that I wasn’t behind the wheel at the time. As with the roundabouts that are increasingly appearing in this part of the state, it takes only a little time to become accustomed to the concept and drivers soon take it in stride, some even pretending they approved of the change from the beginning (though, in fact, they were vocally critical when the plan was first announced.)
Personally I think a J-turn is simpler to negotiate than a cloverleaf left turn which is actually a right O-turn, where one must complete a circle, crossing the path of one’s own entry into the turn on a different level. This dizzying circuit always leaves me slightly disoriented and I never know (for several miles until I see a familiar landmark) if I am heading where I want to go or not.
A couple years ago, I was the passenger in a car where the driver was navigating by a portable GPS when we intended to turn south from Highway 18 near Clear Lake onto I-35. “Turn right,” the electronic navigator commanded. She turned right. I, operating visually noted that we were now on 35 heading toward Ames. “Turn right,” the voice repeated. She edged to the right. “No, no!” I insisted, “we’re already on 35.” “Turn right,” repeated the GPS. My friend obeyed the voice, not me, so we decided to stop for lunch since we seemed destined to proceed to Mason City.
Getting back to strange street configurations; do you remember the supposed “speed breakers” that were installed for a brief time on Highland Avenue just off Keokuk in Iowa City? These were triangular structures that forced traffic to slow and weave in a slalom-like zigzag pattern. The first time I encountered them, I was merely mystified. The second time, I was in the area during the after-school hours and I witnessed a number of high school-age drivers apparently attempting to race the clock to see who could negotiate that obstacle course in the shortest amount of time. The third time I went there, the speed breakers had been removed and the street had returned more or less to normal.
One thing I’ve always believed about Iowa drivers is that they are pretty democratic when it comes to stop signs and traffic lights. Almost everybody waits at a red light, even when there is no cross traffic in sight. Good habit. When they were learning to drive, I taught my kids that they should always obey the lights and they should always signal for turns, even when there is no other traffic to be seen.
“It’s the guy you don’t see who needs to know what you’re going to do,” I reminded them. “Since you don’t see him and don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Iowans aren’t quite as conscientious about stop signs as they are about lights but at least they slow down for them, even if they don’t always come to a full and complete stop. So, since we’re all so accustomed to obeying traffic lights, I should think that turning lanes with traffic lights would be the first solution to try on those busy highways where left turns are such a problem. You know– keep it simple and familiar for all of us old fogies who take so long to get used to new ideas.