We have roundabouts. You know — those circular intersections where the traffic goes round and round and comes out there. We have roundabouts, they’re new and we don’t know much about them. They seem strange and newfangled and make us uncomfortable. Because they are another government project we didn’t ask for, we suspect they are a complete waste of money and will only inconvenience us and never work and why can’t we have a good ol’ intersection with stoplight and turn signals like everybody else? Stop on red, go on green — we know how to do that.
What if roundabouts improved traffic flow? What if they were less complex to build and less complicated for drivers? What if they actually are cheaper than a traditional stoplight intersection? Most importantly, what if they are exponentially safer than an intersection where traffic crosses at right angles?
The what ifs are true. Roundabouts are in many situations better, cheaper and safer than a conventional crossroads. We are not used to them. We don’t know precisely how to navigate them, but we should learn. However much we might prefer barreling through a green light, as opposed to slowing, yielding and circling, we will be better off adapting because roundabouts are coming.
There are roundabouts on Wenatchee’s new Riverside Drive, but the miniature variety, there to look good and slow traffic a little. The true, new roundabout in this region is at Grant Road and Airport Way in Douglas County. It is a modern, 150-foot radius single-lane roundabout designed to handle the collective traffic from Pangborn Memorial Airport, Grant Road and the Batterman Industrial Park, said Douglas County Engineer Douglas Bramlette. It was recommended by the county’s engineering consultant, and consultants for the Batterman development. It is built to national standards and designed to handle typical semi trucks. Plans were reviewed by the state Department of Transportation. It was tested for navigability and tractor-trailer rigs videotaped passing through without problem.
And yet, the roundabout offends some. It has become an election issue. Truckers have complained about the inconvenience. A few have made a point, said Bramlette, by locking their brakes and hacking skid marks across the roundabout’s entries and center apron. “Deliberate and malicious,” he said.
Bramlette is undeterred. He is a roundabout evangelist. He has worked with them in Olympia and the Tri-Cities and is convinced of their benefits. He has seen some of the loudest roundabout skeptics become their biggest supporters. “Change is hard,” he said.
For safety alone roundabouts are worthwhile. Consider that at a traditional intersection traffic approaches at high speed and crosses at 90 degrees, with the constant chance of violent collision. At a roundabout, approaching traffic must slow. As you enter, you yield to traffic on the left, always turning to the right, then circling, then exiting to the right. There is no chance of a T-bone crash. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has this data: A 2001 study of 23 intersections converted to roundabouts showed injury crashes reduced by 80 percent and all crashes by 40 percent. A study of 17 rural intersections with 40 mph and higher speed limits converted to roundabouts found the injury crash rate cut by 84 percent and fatal crashes eliminated.
Virtually every signaled intersection in this state has had a serious accident or a fatality, said Bramlette. There are 190 roundabouts in Washington, he said, and collectively they have had one fatality — a motorcycle rider going through at 60 mph.
Roundabouts cost as much to build as a regular intersection, but are cheaper in the long run because there are no complex electronics to maintain or replace. They don’t take much more land than a regular intersection. Traffic flows through evenly, rather than being platooned by the traffic signal. They also look better.
Welcome roundabouts, don’t hate them. For safer and cheaper we can drive around.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Tuesday through Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.