Round and round over roundabouts

Print Print
Marcia Nelesen
Monday, February 4, 2013

— The mere mention of roundabouts can kick up passionate debate.

"Good thing there is a hospital nearby," one Gazettextra.com reader grumbled in comments attached to an article about two new roundabouts to be installed at Racine Street and Interstate 90/39.

"The worthless roundabouts are a death trap waiting to happen," wrote another.

"I'd rather import European Socialism than European roundabouts," wrote a third.

Why don't some people like roundabouts?

"That's what we're trying to find out," said Patrick Fleming, standards development engineer at the state Department of Transportation.

"It's hard for me to speculate," said Carl Weber, Janesville's public works director. "Certainly, I was open to them because the statistics just smack you in the face—how much safer they are."

When Janesville city staff proposed a roundabout on Milwaukee Street in 2011, however, the city council rejected it, partly because of resident feedback about roundabouts. It was rejected again in 2012 when two council members brought it up for another vote.

"It's a hot button for people living in Wisconsin," said Ben Coopman, director of public works and the highway commissioner for Rock County.

He recalled hosting a birthday party for his mom in Neenah. Several relatives didn't attend because they would have had to navigate several roundabouts.

It's not always the elderly who complain, Fleming said. Many older drivers in Florida prefer roundabout because they only have to look to the left.

Complaints about roundabouts come from truck drivers and snowplow drivers, but they also come from those driving small vehicles, as well.

Coopman has conflicting feelings about roundabouts because of the maintenance headaches they cause his road crews.

Maybe it's because roundabouts are new and people don't understand them, Fleming and Weber said. Accommodations for pedestrians also are different. Pedestrians cross about 25 feet before vehicles reach a roundabout.

"Truckers don't like them, but what are you gonna do?" said Jerry Klabacka, director of the Diesel Truck Driver Training School in Sun Prairie.

"They're not going to go away. They've been very efficient, and I think most people, once they get used to them, really appreciate them."

Here to stay

It's a good bet roundabouts are here to stay, contrary to some who describe them as an engineering fad.

Weber recalls first hearing about roundabouts 20 years ago when he worked in De Pere and heard a presentation by an Australian visiting to educate people about roundabouts.

About 200 state-built roundabouts have been installed in Wisconsin since 2004, and the state builds an average of 15 to 25 a year, Fleming said. Another 75 or so are on local systems around Wisconsin. Other states are building them, as well.

All roundabouts on the state highway system are designed to accommodate legal-sized trucks, Fleming said.

Trucks tip when their loads shift because drivers are going too fast, Fleming said.

"I can guarantee you that no truck will tip over if it is going through at 3 miles an hour."

The compelling reason for roundabouts is safety, Fleming said. A standard intersection has 24 points of conflict—spots where vehicles could collide—but a roundabout has eight.

A common crash at four-way intersections is the front of one vehicle slamming into the side of another, causing severe injury and death. The chances of such T-bone crashes are greatly reduced in roundabout intersections, advocates say.

Studies show roundabouts reduce crash severity and usually also the number of crashes.

Vehicles must slow to navigate a roundabout. If a car is hit, the angle is more a glancing blow or a fender bender.

"No one is hurt," Fleming said.

Weber said turns in the Racine Street roundabouts wouldn't be nearly as tight as the roundabout on Highway 59 near Milton, where a truck tipped with its load of ethanol Nov. 27. The state is planning to widen the Milton roundabouts.

Roundabout designs keep improving, Weber said. Approaches to new roundabouts are curved to ease motorists into the circle, he said.

Another plus? Nobody waits for traffic lights at roundabouts.

Weber said he prefers to slow and wait for his chance to enter an intersection rather than sit at a red light.

"How many times do you pull up at a red light and nobody is there but you?" Fleming asked.

Crashes increase at some roundabouts, and that might be because accidents can increase at any intersection after changes are made, he said. Crashes might decrease when people learn to navigate roundabouts, Fleming said.

"There is either a desire not to understand or a misunderstanding of yield," Fleming said.

The key is to yield, he said. A motorist should enter a roundabout only when all lanes are free of vehicles.

Focus on education

The DOT is ramping up education in an effort to soften residents' views on roundabouts. It printed 4 million fliers to include in license renewal information. A DOT website includes an interactive video.

"It's kind of a human reaction to new things—that you're not really in favor of it until you understand it a little more," Fleming said. "So, it's like anything else. It's self education."

People aren't accustomed to roundabouts, and that can cause some level of initial confusion, Weber acknowledged.

"You need to make a decision when you come into them, as opposed to a traffic light, where a green light tells you to go—even though the green light might tell you to go when somebody is running the red light in the other direction and is ready to broadside you," he said.

Dual-lane roundabouts can be a more difficult introduction, Weber acknowledged. Unfortunately, many Janesville residents will cut their teeth on two new multi-lane roundabouts near the Interstate.

Janesville has two roundabouts. The one at Menards has little traffic continuing through on Morse Street and no connection to a private road going south.

The second roundabout is in an isolated subdivision.

"If you don't know how to use them at home, you're going to be lost using them in other communities," Weber said.

"Ultimately, most folks will find out this works out pretty well. Support always goes up after people get used to them."

Ben Coopman said roundabouts are a challenge for snowplows and large trucks.

On County G, county engineers opted against a roundabout for an intersection that will serve trucks hauling long girders from a nearby factory.

Coopman has his own conflicting views on roundabouts.

He appreciates their safety, but he knows they are difficult to mow and plow because equipment operators must deal with awkward angles and elevated truck aprons.

"There's always a certain amount of snow that stays behind," Coopman said.

His department maintains three roundabouts on East Hart Road in the town of Turtle.

"Talk about challenges," he said. "There's close to 60 street lights in those three interchanges."

But Coopman knows roundabouts are coming, like them or not.

"I prefer signals, but roundabouts do make a lot of sense," he said. "They probably make a lot more sense where you don't have snow."

Jerry Klabacka of the truck driving school said most roundabouts on truck routes are large enough for truckers to navigate by using the truck apron and both lanes. Some of the smaller ones are impossible, but they aren't on truck routes.

"The big thing with roundabouts, when the sign says yield, yield means stop or proceed safely," he said. "It doesn't mean merge."

Truckers don't particularly like them, but they're here to say, Klabacka said.

"People better get used to them."


Last updated: 8:14 am Monday, April 29, 2013

Print Print