Q: Have there been any studies that show traffic circles to be advantageous? It seems to me that it promotes what I call “vehicular chicken.”
R.E.R., of Highland
A: As soon as I told my editors that my topic was going to be roundabouts, one immediately joked, “Oh, those things that drivers love to hate.”
Unfortunately, that does seem to be the case for a large percentage of drivers in the United States. Even though countless studies show them to not only speed traffic but also reduce accidents and air pollution, many people seem to dread them like death and taxes.
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It seems to have been that way ever since New York City installed what is often regarded as the first such U.S. roundabout on the southwest corner of Central Park in 1905. Even Hollywood plays them for laughs. Remember the scene in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” when Clark Griswold drives around and around a London roundabout, crying, “ Hey, look, kids, there’s Big Ben! Parliament!” over and over as he starts to lose his grip on reality?
So why do we seem to have meltdowns over a traffic device that the rest of world has learned to take in stride? (Tiny England has 25,000, France has 32,000 and even the Land Down Under has 10,000. By comparison, the entire U.S. has a paltry 4,000 or so.) Perhaps we have just never recovered from their nightmarish debut.
When they started, the rule was that traffic entering the circle had the right of way while cars in the circle had to yield. You probably can just imagine the chaos that ensued. Drivers approaching the circle would speed up to enter while those in the circle would have to stop, causing massive congestion and more accidents. For the next 40 years or so, they were written off as an interesting experiment gone bad, according to Miovision Technologies, a traffic design company in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
But then in 1966, Frank Blackmore, an English engineer, decided to dust off the concept with one huge change: He reversed the traffic priorities. Those approaching the intersection now had to wait to safely enter the traffic flow while those in the circle had the right of way until they exited the circle. Furthermore, entry speeds were reduced from 25 to 15 mph. Within a decade, thousands were being built all over England and accident rates plummeted.
Yet when Leif Ourston, an American engineer, tried to bring them across the pond in the 1980s, he met fierce resistance. Surveys found only 20 percent of U.S. drivers favored roundabouts. At one point, Ourston asked Blackmore to visit him in California, writing:
“In 1941, Sir Winston Churchill asked America to join Britain in a struggle to protect democracy. We joined you and together we triumphed. Now, 45 years later, I am calling upon you to help me with a difficult struggle in which we are both engaged.”
Since then, thousands have been built, including several new ones in the metro-east. Still, I’m not sure how much we’ve won over the hearts and minds of drivers. They still seem to be more tolerated than loved, I think, because many drivers still do not know or follow the rules. Either impatient drivers will try to force their way into the circle when they should not or drivers in the circle will try to be nice and let those waiting cut in. Either way, it defeats the purpose of the roundabout and preserves their bad reputation.
Let me try to make a brief case why Discover magazine in 2001 called traffic circles “the single most important device ever created to help control traffic safely and smoothly.”
Even without burying you in statistics, I can give you one personal anecdote. Before those two new roundabouts were added at South Belt West and Centerville Avenue, I would always avoid the intersection in the late afternoons because traffic would back up for blocks and you’d have to wait through at least two or three light cycles to get through. Even though I admit I was a bit trepidatious to use it when it first opened, I find it far quicker to get through the intersection now.
But if you like numbers, I certainly have plenty to try to sway you. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, roundabouts as compared to four-way intersections typically result in a 37 percent reduction in overall collisions, a 40 percent reduction in pedestrian collisions, a 75 percent reduction in injury collisions, and a whopping 90 percent drop in fatality collisions. In a study of a roundabout in Hilton Head, S.C., for example, crashes in a given time period dropped from 42 to nine and injuries went from nine to zero. A similar study of five roundabouts in Avon, Colo., showed accidents cut from 163 to 95 and injuries dropping from 12 to two.
Why? While traditional intersections have 32 possible “collision contact points,” roundabouts have only eight. There are no lights to beat and all traffic is going in one direction. And because many drivers fear them, they slow up more, making them even safer.
But that’s not the only advantage. Even though you obviously are skeptical, a Kansas Department of Transportation study in 2004 found a drop in average intersection delay (20 to 8 seconds), approach delay — the time it took to reach the intersection – (34 to 10 seconds), the maximum length of the waiting traffic (190 to 104 feet), and the maximum percentage of vehicles stopped (62 percent to 37 percent). Other studies have produced similar results.
But wait, there’s more. Without traffic lights, the long-term costs of roundabouts can save cities between $5,000 and $10,000 a year on hardware, maintenance and electricity. Not only that, but during power outages drivers don’t skip a beat while busy lighted intersections have to be treated as a four-way stop, usually backing traffic up even more. And in addition to fuming over backups, you’ll also breathe more fumes at traditional intersections. A Kansas State University study figured that carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon emissions at roundabouts were cut by a third to a half.
So the next time you face a traffic circle, take a deep breath of that fresher air and remember the rules: Enter when there’s a safe opening and try not to stop until you exit. Who knows? Maybe they’ll eventually win you over.
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Answer to Jan. 22 trivia: In the 1850s American photographer/glassmaker Thomas Adams was a secretary to Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, when he noticed that Santa Anna would frequently chew gum from the local Manilkara Chicle tree. Together with his eldest son, Thomas Jr., Adams soon made the first batch of modern chewing gum that he named “Adams New York No. 1.” In 1871 he would start making the licorice-flavored Black Jack brand, further cementing his name as the father of the modern chewing gum industry.