Skip to comments.For Safety's Sake, Roundabouts Replaced Stop Lights, but Pileups Began Piling Up
Posted on 01/18/2002 7:50:31 AM PST by H.R. Gross
For Safety's Sake,
Roundabouts Replaced Stop Lights,
but Pileups Began Piling Up
By RICK BROOKS
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Carol Cullen had 15 years of dent-free driving under her belt when she steered a rented van last July onto a new circular intersection here. Seconds later, a delivery truck that was supposed to stay in the next lane plowed into the van, leaving Ms. Cullen unhurt but disoriented.
"The whole world is trained to look straight ahead," says Ms. Cullen, who sets up promotional displays for Hilton Hotels Corp. "Now they've got us trying to stare around curves?"
It seemed like a good idea at the time. The $8 million Clearwater roundabout would replace a dangerous tangle of streets and intersections often choked with beach-bound traffic. It would create an artistic entry point for visitors.
But since opening in December 1999, the roundabout has scared the wits out of drivers trying to navigate it. No one knows which cars are supposed to have the right-of-way. Some discombobulated motorists hug the right shoulder, making it hard for other cars to exit and causing backups at side streets. The wedding-cake-shaped fountain in the center has doused windshields and obstructed views of cars rounding the circle from the opposite side.
So far, there have been more than 500 accidents at the roundabout, which was touted at its opening as the greatest ever built in the U.S. The site "has been very good for business," says James McKeever, manager of nearby Pinellas Auto Body & Service Inc, which had one of its own tow trucks hit there. The frequency of accidents is eight times higher at the roundabout than at the intersections it replaced. City officials say the crashes are less severe, primarily because cars are now moving more slowly.
It's a similar story elsewhere. As traffic planners across the U.S. rip out stop signs to install roundabouts that can slow aggressive drivers, some cities are discovering that these so-called "traffic-calming devices" do exactly the opposite. Some drivers go the wrong way, figuring it's OK to turn left into the roundabout if you plan to hop off at the first side street. Trucks flatten curbs and landscaping. In some places, accident rates have surged after the installation of roundabouts, causing them to be razed in favor of old-fashioned traffic lights or stop signs.
The Circle Game
Roundabout designers, a number of whom are British or Australian, grudgingly acknowledge that they have a lot to teach Americans about going in circles. In April 2000, officials in Claremont, Calif., demolished the town's only roundabout just eight months after it was installed, saying drivers found it bewildering. Driver confusion at two roundabouts near Las Vegas has put them on Nevada's annual list of the worst crash spots. A video called "Roundabout Rules of the Road" was broadcast in Nashville, Tenn., for several weeks last year after a roundabout opened on Music Row.
In Clearwater, disoriented drivers smacked into each other or into the fountain at the an average of almost five a week. Tires squeal, horns honk and brakes screech as drivers try to make their way through the loop.
The nearby beach is also harder to reach without taking a spin around the circle. "It's a monster, and I was an engineer myself," says retiree Bernice Lazar, who takes a nine-mile detour to avoid the roundabout.
Roundabouts are the latest incarnation of the circular intersections that began in this country with New York City's Columbus Circle in 1905. Defenders claim the modern roundabout is a much-safer alternative to the traditional traffic circles typical of New England, which were usually larger rotaries that didn't slow cars much and gradually fell out of favor. The new roundabouts -- based on a slimmed-down British version -- are designed with a much smaller diameter, making the circle tighter and forcing drivers to lower speeds to about 15 miles an hour.
The circles' defenders claim they are safer than typical intersections, since drivers are forced to navigate slowly. About 9,500 fatal accidents occur at traditional intersections every year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Several academic studies have shown declines in crashes where roundabouts were built, including in Europe, but federal officials say it depends on where and how the circles are built.
"You can't just put these down everywhere," says Harry Campbell, the chief transportation engineer of Orlando, Fla., which spent $25,000 to build a small circle and then concluded that four $75 stop signs would have worked better. "It's like art," he says of the roundabout-building boom. "It evokes controversy."
The controversy erupted quickly in Clearwater. As the pileups piled up, some drivers began adopting survival techniques that reduce the efficiency of roundabouts, like straddling both lanes at once to avoid side collisions. Angry drivers flooded city hall and local newspapers with complaints.
And some roundabout rules don't make much sense, including permitting cars to exit from the inside lane. At the most notorious exit point in the Clearwater circle, there still are no arrows on the pavement to point drivers in the right direction. On busy beach-going days, the roundabout has handled more than 50,000 vehicles, much more than the 32,000 it was designed for.
Clearwater is trying to turn things around. The fountain has been turned off and is likely to be demolished, and changes to lane markings give drivers a better idea of where to aim. The most recent accident reports also offer some encouragement: 23 crashes in the final three months of last year compared with 49 in the same period in 2000.
Michael Wallwork, a transplanted Australian who helped design Clearwater's roundabout, pins much of the blame on drivers. "A lot of the opposition to roundabouts comes from a very simple bias," he says. "Americans are fed a diet of speed all the way from freeways to residential streets."
Write to Rick Brooks at email@example.com
I was trained to look to the sides and also behind when driving, not just stare straight ahead.
If you're not aware of what's going on around you, then you are a menace on the road.
In Tennessee, they pay a GREAT deal of attention to the rear end of the car they're following. Tailgating capitol of the world.
I spent 3 weeks in Australia in1999 and drove there a little bit. Every intersection, for the most part, is a roundabout and they do just fine. The diameter of their roundabouts is much smaller than the Clearwater roundabout and they don't put anyting in the middle of them, which may make a difference. Also, everyone knows the rules: The car already in the roundabout has the right away. It seemed pretty easy to me once I got the hang of it. I also appreciated not having to sit at a red light with no traffic coming in any direction, like is often the case here in the states.
Sticking a few "Battlebots" hazards into an intersection would slow things down, but I wouldn't recommend them either!
Here in Boston we have a lot of -- well, we call them "rotaries." A few years ago, I picked up a Boston driver calendar. January's page featured the question "Who has the right of way in a rotary?" The cartoon was of a crazy-eyed maniac leaning out of his car, brandishing an uprooted "yield" sign -- the answer, "The one who looks the craziest!" Works around here.
When my kids were learning to drive one of the things I told them is that, in my opinion, the most dangerous place to drive is in a half-full parking lot. Cars can come at you from any direction, including through empty spaces in rows of parked cars.
Isn't it nice to know that the Brilliant Minds of the 21st Century can re-onvent the hazards of the 1930s? 'Rat
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