Saturday, November 21, 2009

Round about on roundabouts

I'm struck by how, in these days of ultra-conservative extinction bursts, everything, apparently, is a communist plot.

Saturday's column

Round about on roundabouts

They’re driven to become our new best friend

They’ve been installing roundabouts here in Washington County at an increasing rate, with more planned. I like them. They’re fun and they accommodate, better than any other intersection, the Wisconsin Rolling Stop. No more tickets for rolling, no matter how slowly, through a stop sign.

I would never have thought it possible to politicize these well-established, cost-effective, and vastly safer traffic control methodologies as some kind of Soviet apparatchik intrusion into the comfortable stop-and-go lights of suburban life, but one of our other Opinion page columnists has come out against them on the grounds that they’re inconvenient and confusing -- and an example of a socialist/communist state bureaucracy run amok.

It seems a big new roundabout at I-43 and Moorland Road in New Berlin has had a steep learning curve that puts it out of step with the statistics that make roundabouts both fashionable and desirable. Even though the rate of accidents with injuries has been cut in half, this new interchange is still having a lot of fender-benders, nearly three per month over the past year and a half, including during construction.

For all this inconvenience, the transition to roundabouts is not being driven by a bunch of Bolshevik lawyers in Madison, but by economic considerations. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has developed some well-tested projections about what kind of savings roundabouts can provide in terms of accidents, injury and drive times. These are the figures the DOT thought would be worth pursuing.

First, think about this: In a normal intersection there are about 32 ways one car can run into another one. In a roundabout, there are only eight. In a study of 23 intersections where roundabouts replaced stop signs, the IIHS found total crashes decreased by 39 percent, but that crashes involving injuries decreased by 76 percent and those involving fatalities or permanent injury were cut by 90 percent. When the insurance industry issues numbers like this the only wonder is that the DOT didn’t install these circles all over the state.

But there’s more. Roundabouts save time and money for drivers. Figures from the same study showed that in about half the locations vehicle delays were cut by 62 percent to 74 percent. Working out the math suggests that drivers saved 325,000 hours in wait-time over one year and, because you don’t have to come to a complete stop and idle at a stoplight or stop sign, saved 235,000 gallons of gas.

The municipalities that removed stoplights saved, on average, $5,000 per year per intersection on electricity and maintenance. A real world example is the city of Golden, Colo. with a population of just under 20,000. I found a consultant’s report from 2004 that showed accident rates had dropped by 88 percent. Better yet, their roundabouts reduced the number of accidents with injuries from 31, in the three years before installation, to only one in the four and a half years after.

When you’re hunting down Bolsheviks responsible for making your life less convenient, it’s easy to overlook history. Our local roundabouts were by no means the first ones the DOT trotted out. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, more than two years ago, that despite some initial reluctance, they tried roundabouts in Madison and Eau Claire first. The DOT found that, indeed, roundabouts “kept traffic moving and resulted in fewer injury accidents.” Even in West Bend, the city Planning Department tells me the roundabout out at Highway G and Paradise Drive has cut accident rates dramatically.

So they’re safer, but what if we still don’t like ‘em? Well, people do like them.

Everywhere they’ve been installed satisfaction rates among motorists jump after a few months. In 2002, another IIHS study found that while only 31 percent of drivers supported roundabouts before construction, support climbed to 63 percent within a few months. When they followed up a year later, “the level of public support increased to about 70 percent on average.”

You could still argue that roundabouts are just too confusing – that would explain some of the trouble they’ve been having down there at I-43 and Moorland. On the other hand, the roundabout isn’t confused, it’s the drivers. They’re turning the wrong way and even stopping in the middle of the lane when they can’t figure out what to do next. All this will pass with experience and, in the meantime, remember, they’re only driving at about 10 mph.

My grandfather was an engineer for the city of Minneapolis back in the ancient days, and liked to reminisce about the year they rearranged their downtown into one-way streets. People were furious for years afterward and yet, today, those changes made all the difference in traffic flow and driver convenience. Roundabouts are annoying for some people when they first go in but, eventually, your exit will appear and you’ll wonder why we ever went round and round on roundabouts and what we ever did without them.

I'm waiting for fluoridation to come back around.


ps: Roundabouts, the whole truth.


kevin scheunemann said...


I missed the part where Mark Belling indicated Roundabouts are a Communist plot?

I like One lane Roundabouts. I just wish they didn't cost so much to build. (yet another case of runaway $$$ in relation to municipal and state engineers!)

One lane roundabouts have their place if it can be done more cost effectively.

Multiple lane roundabouts present the safety problem. Drivers are having problems adapting to multiple lane roundabouts.

Criticizing government to make it MORE effective and accountable is NOT a communist conspiracy theory.

Why don't we talk about Jim Doyle's constant raid on the transportation fund to fuel his pork laden state budget that makes our highways less safe?

Anonymous said...

Are you feeling well Kevin? You didn't mention Obama anywhere in there.

kevin Scheunemann said...


Sorry about that. I hate to disappoint.

"Roundabout" is the perfect term to describe foreign policy from Obama's campaign promises to today's presidential foreign polices.

I feel much better.

Rich Kasten said...

Wow Mark, have you taken a page from the Journal/Sentinel's own Eugene Kane where everything he does not agree with is racism? In your case, when you don't agree, you seem to claim the opposition is saying it is communism...

I for one, have had more near misses in a roundabout than I have ever had in a 4 way stop. Many people treat Paradise / G as a more expensive 4 way stop anyways!

wbman said...

I think you should journey to the Circles of Hell on Highway 145 near Cabela's. They're examples of double-lane roundabouts, not as benign as those on Highway G and Highway P. The signage only adds to the confusion. I drove through during the day... very carefully. I'd hate to encounter them, or any unfamiliar set of circles, at night. In my dealings with DOT traffic engineers, the "human factor" isn't in their playbook, only purity of design.

Mpeterson said...

Wow Rich, I hadn't thought of you as one of those reasonably well-off white boys who feels he's a victim of reverse racism before... but I will now. For the record I agree with James Cone -- when black people hate white people, it isn't "reverse" racism, it's common sense. White folks only call it racism because "Massa don't like it when the coloreds get uppity."

Doesn't make you a racist, btw -- just a white American.

Just an opinion mind you. If you want to talk about the inherent power dynamics of race in America I'll be happy to open a separate topic line. It's one of my favorite topics. (For the record I'm not in favor of affirmative action as a mode of reparation.)

But roundabouts? You've had trouble with them? Criminy Rich, I've never had trouble navigating roundabouts in, like, three different continents plus Mexico.

The numbers are solid from everywhere else in the US too -- and even in Wisconsin -- where they've been put in. The drivers down at Moorland are getting better, despite the statistically improbable rate of dings they're rolling up, just as they did in Eau Claire and as they are here.

If you want to complain that drivers here just too stupid to figure them out... well shoot, even I didn't want to make that argument but go ahead. The cops I talked to from West Bend and Jackson all disagree with you too.

Anonymous said...

I live in Whitewater and commute to Janesville to work. Just the other day, they re-routed highway 59. Previously, 59 was a straight shot with no stops or obstructions. Now, it has THREE roundabouts within a one mile stretch and there are no roads that lead to the left or right at any of the roundabouts. Explain that one!

Imagine heading south on Highway G and you hit the roundabout. Now, imagine that Paradise Drive doesn't exist. What's the point of a roundabout if you can only continue going straight or make a U-turn???

I simply don't understand. But I do appreciate roundabouts in the sense that I don't have to stop. The wear-and-tear on my car is reduced and I burn less gas.

Anonymous said...

Roundabouts: E. Paradise Drive and Co Hwy G. - When the paint is wet; it's EXTREMELY slippery for Michelin motorcycle touring tires. I will take the opportunity to test other Roundabouts in Spring. I am well insured :-)

On the other hand, I went South on G through this Roundabout on a sunny day with my wife on the back of the bike. Half way into the turn, a silver-haired, chronologically advanced driver pulls in from E. Paradise Drive to turn S. on G too. Because of the Roundabout's design, I was able to swerve to the left side of the lane and he naturally stayed far to the lane's right: A side swipe was avoidable, and yet I was close enough to kick a sound dent into his door panel, ...if my wife would not have been on the back.

I would like to see a Roundabout at G and NN.

I enjoyed the sound swipe at Mr. B*lling's article "Arrogance fuels state's obsession with roundabouts".

Rich Kasten said...

I think you missed the analogy Mark - I was not explicitly talking race - I was talking about the opinion methodology. When one disagrees with some idea or action, they immediately make it larger than it is (communism, race, etc.)

Anyways, when it comes to roundabouts and my ability to traverse them - I don't have problems traversing them; its the other cars that come to a sudden stop when they enter them or when they become confused. The other thing is when you come to Paradise and G and there are 6 or 7 cars lined up to get into the roundabout as a train of cars enters from the left. Nothing more than an expensive two-way stop at that point.

John Jost said...

I remember a Belgian TV show called "Sans Rancune", i.e. No Hard Feelings, similar to Candid Camera, where one gag was that they closed four of the five branches of a roundabout, let one unfortunate driver get in, then surreptitiously closed the last exit, just to see how long the poor guy would circle before coming to a stop to wonder what the hell was going on. I would not risk such a joke here, it could be the death toll for roundabouts...

Not surprisingly, Kevin S. mentioned cost. To be pseudo-biblical, Kevin, "To everything there is a cost". And this is exactly what we pay taxes for: to build the infrastructure we need to live happy lives. As to complexity, drivers who can apparently combine redesigning their faces, texting, listening to the radio, eating a sandwich, and driving should be able to handle the roundabout challenge.

I'm all for traffic devices that cause drivers to wake up. Lights are not too good at that. Four-way stops are better, and roundabouts still better since they let you choose whether or not to stop. Just remember to blink right before exiting so the guy coming in knows he doesn't have to yield to you.

Rich Kasten said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mpeterson said...

Hey Rich, I deleted your second posting of the same message.

Oh, you didn't mean to raise the race issue, just the "political content columnists use hyperbole" issue.

Oh, yeah. Guilty. Sort of.

I should note that as far as "opinion" goes, methodologically as well as metaphysically, there are no real true or false opinions. For true and false you need knowledge -- things like DOT statistics, in this case.

One of my favorite lines from Plato is his commentary on the distinction between knowing and merely believing. He says "A man with a true opinion is like a blind man who takes the right road by accident."

Everyone claims to have weird experiences on roundabouts, but the numbers say that anecdotal experience isn't the full truth.

Like the last school referendum: to hear Owen tell it, you'd think there was overwhelming opposition when, it turns out, there wasn't.

On the other hand, pointing out that Belling treats anything he doesn't like from Madison as a communist/socialist intrusion into his SUV ownership rights, is not a logical fallacy. I'm simply saying what's there. You can call my rhetorical methods highfalutin, but not my facts. :^)

On the other hand, if I ever get within 3 standard deviation units of the kind of heightened rhetorical whipped cream we see in Sykes or Belling... well, I'll resign my tenure.

SafeLibraries said...

"The DOT found that, indeed, roundabouts 'kept traffic moving and resulted in fewer injury accidents.'"

I'm from NJ. NJ was loaded with roundabouts. Gradually they are being replaced with intersections because of the number of people being killed in roundabouts. Well, NJ is very crowded. Maybe that's the reason for the difference.

Mpeterson said...

I'm still waiting for my over-politicized friends here to finish making the case that Wisconsin drivers are dumber than New Jersey drivers... Kevin?

Anonymous said...

Safe Libraries, in Wisconsin they are doing "roundabouts" which are a different "beast" than New Jersey's old "traffic circles". In a roundabout, everyone yields and there is a traffic calming effect (no one can barrel through an intersection at 15-20+ miles over the speed limit). In New Jersey's traffic circles, if you are entering from a "side" road you have to yield to those that are on the "main" road.

Roundabouts eliminate those "t-Bone" accidents that cause so much injury & deaths.

SafeLibraries said...

K, thanks.

kevin Scheunemann said...

Sorry Mark,

I have not commented on this issue since my witty "Roundabout" on foreign policy Obama comment.

I'll never hide behind an "anonymous" label.