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.