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State and local officials examine roundabout safety, traffic issues

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
February 18, 2012
— The three roundabouts on Highway 59 east of Milton might seem like pointless merry-go-rounds for traffic, even for local drivers who know their future purpose.

They’re just extra curves in the road now, but two of them will coordinate a traffic interchange at the spot where the future Highway 26 bypass will cross Highway 59.


The bypass is part of the 50-mile expansion of Highway 26, which is slated for completion in 2013. The intersection of the two highways east of Milton will see a growing volume of local, commuter and large truck traffic as an estimated 16,000 vehicles take the bypass daily, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.


The DOT engineered the roundabout interchanges at the intersection for speed control and safety.


It’s a trend for the DOT, the rationale being that roundabouts slow traffic while eliminating stoplights and cutting down on accidents.


According to Patrick Fleming, a DOT highway design and safety engineer, the state has built 155 roundabouts along state highways since 2004. There also are about 50 more located on municipal roadways, not including dozens of smaller “traffic-calming circles” in residential areas, he said.


Fleming said the DOT plans to build 150 more roundabouts in the next five years. Locally, the state plans two more at Highway 26 and Harmony Town Hall Road as part the Highway 26 expansion.


Since 2004, Fleming said, Wisconsin roadways that have had traditional intersections replaced with roundabouts have seen a 54 percent drop in traffic accidents that involve injury.


Fleming said national surveys show it’s typical for drivers to initially resist or oppose roundabouts. However, surveys show resistance tends to wane after about a year’s time as people begin to get used to driving them. Time has another virtue: As the state builds more roundabouts and existing ones are in place long enough for the state to collect traffic data and complaints from local governments, the DOT is able to address concerns about how roundabouts affect traffic flow, and in some cases, driver safety.


Not crash-free


Though they’re touted as safety-enhancers, roundabouts don’t eliminate vehicle crashes.


An analysis of Rock County Sheriff’s Office crash records at the farthest east Milton roundabout—the one located at Highway 59 and County M—shows the intersection has had 13 reported crashes since February 2010.


According to Rock County sheriff’s reports, all but one of the crashes involved a single vehicle, and each happened as vehicles westbound on Highway 59 entered the roundabout while moving too fast.


Westbound traffic must slow from a highway speed of 55 miles-per-hour to 15 miles-per-hour to safely negotiate the roundabout, which is the first of three along the stretch of Highway 59.


According to sheriff’s reports, some of the vehicles careened into curbs and signs on the outer edges of the roundabout, while others ran head-on into the center of the roundabout, which is curbed and landscaped.


While just three of the crashes caused injuries, reports show most left vehicles with damages including blown-out tires, broken axles and torn up undercarriages. One motorcyclist crashed while negotiating the roundabout too fast and sustained “road rash” injuries, according to sheriff’s reports.


Rock County Sheriff’s Patrol Capt. Jude Maurer said that almost every crash at the roundabout has been linked to excessive speed, and about half of them listed wet or icy pavement as a contributing factor.


Signs are posted to alert approaching drivers of the roundabout and its posted safe speed, Maurer said. Still, some drivers don’t slow down enough, or they slow too late once they’re already inside the roundabout.


“They realize fast that 15 miles-per-hour is 15 miles-per-hour for negotiation of these intersections,” Maurer said.


Maurer said the county doesn’t consider the roundabout a critical intersection because accidents there have mostly been minor with few injuries.


“It doesn’t jump out as an intersection needing intervention,” he said.


The city of Milton and the DOT have addressed safety concerns at the roundabouts by adding more signs alerting drivers to slow down. Sometimes, it’s a case of unfamiliarity with the roadway.


“We’ve had problems with people from out of state,” Milton Police Chief Dan Layber said.


Big trucks and emergencies


The Milton roundabouts already see a volume of large truck traffic daily for local industries along Highway 59 such as United Ethanol, Freedom Graphics and Ott Schweitzer Distributing.


Fleming says all roundabouts built in the state are wide enough for the largest standard semitrailer truck and include “truck aprons,” curbed drivable inner lanes in the centers of roundabouts, so trucks can negotiate turns. They’re also engineered with enough room for emergency vehicles to pass, and for standard plow trucks to clear snow, Fleming said.


Jason Arneson, vice president of Arneson Trucking in Janesville, estimates that his company runs 10 to 20 trucks to the United Ethanol in Milton each week. Each truck has to pass through the Milton roundabouts.


Arneson said when a semitrailer truck is fully loaded it can be tricky for drivers to negotiate roundabouts. He said truck drivers must enter at an angle and slow to speeds of 10 miles-per-hour or less to avoid scrubbing tires against curbs.


Arneson said drivers also must contend with motorists on roundabouts who frequently pass on the right, cutting them off.


Chalk it up to another gripe for truck drivers.


“It’s a nuisance, but it’s just something everyone will have to deal with in everyday life,” said Arneson.


When there’s an accident or when a truck breaks down in the middle of one of the Milton roundabouts, it can halt traffic from both directions because there’s not enough room for vehicles to pass, city officials say.


“With those roundabouts, you basically have to divert traffic until you get it cleared,” Layber said.


It’s a concern city officials forwarded to the DOT in January.


Mark Vesperman, a DOT project manager for the Highway 26 expansion, said the state plans to modify the Milton roundabouts this summer.


Vesperman said crews will reduce the size of landscaped islands inside the roundabouts to add about 10 more feet of paved area. That will make it easier for large trucks to turn and provide enough space to allow emergency vehicles and other traffic during a crash or breakdown to continue.



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