Roundabout the Intersection


Here’s a common sight on our roads. Looks like a few cars got together at an intersection. I wonder if somebody ran a red light? After all, these days, no self respecting dude or dudette dares to apply their brakes at the first sign of a yellow light…no sir, yellow is the new green on our highways and bi-ways. And even if you are feeling a bit responsible for the other drivers, odds are the daredevil hanging on your back fender is liable to take offense with any attempt at road courtesy.

Being a bit of a daredevil myself, I like to try to turn across the light when I’m waiting for traffic and the light changes from green to yellow. My wife refuses to ride with me; she thinks I have a death wish. I think I have the right of way. Silly boy is the edited version of the name she calls me when I do this.

Traffic cameras seem to be the only thing that progressives and conservatives agree on; to wit, they are a gross violation of our individual rights and a blatant attempt by "The State" to line its empty coffers at the citizens’ expense. Forget, for the moment, that they might act to deter the most egregious offenders, the unlicensed, the drunks, and the texters.

Recently, I read that our local organs have begun to program red lights so that they remain red for a few extra seconds. Apparently they believe that a light that has been red for more than 3 seconds will act as a deterrent to the runners. I guess they don’t get out much; the extra time just lets a few more cars in the runvoy get through the intersection.

No sir, red lights are the broken windows of our automotive experience, and until we get the runners under control we aren’t going to solve the problem. Here’s a daunting statistic:

Intersections are perhaps the single most dangerous environment in traffic. According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than one-fifth of all traffic fatalities happen at intersections. If you think the problem is a lack of signals, think again. Reports FHWA: "Only 10% of all intersections are signalized, but nearly 30% (2,744) of intersection fatalities occurred at signalized intersections."

 There is a solution, if we could just get past our ignorance. It’s called the roundabout. Here’s a nice article about this marvel of highway engineering, and here’s a picture of a new, modern version.

Isn’t it lovely? Clean. modern, nicely landscaped, but mostly it’s safe and very efficient. We even have a few of them in our county, and they seem to work just fine. But every time planners try to impose this solution on the local citizenry, the hullabaloo drowns out the voice of reason. You’d think the planners were talking about those damn red light cameras the way folks get so aggravated. Here’s a typical response to the roundabout solution:

It’s hard for me to believe that the elected officials of Sarasota are so out of touch that they would contemplate installing roundabouts on U.S. 41.

I have a condo on Longboat Key, but more importantly, I reside in New Jersey. Anyone who has read the national news or has ever been up north knows of the horrors of “traffic circles.” These outdated and dangerous traffic devices have been the cause of untold accidents, injuries and many deaths.

During the last 15 years, New Jersey taxpayers had to spend hundreds of millions of dollar to remove roundabouts that were installed during the 1940s and 1950s. They don’t work in today’s urban settings.

Please stop this folly before it’s too late. For the safety of the driving public and especially our senior citizens, who are most often involved in accidents at these circles. Please don’t waste our taxes on this outdated and dangerous scheme.

John Maier

Longboat Key and New Jersey

There it is….they are too complicated for drivers and they don’t work. Of course, what does work in New Jersey? What does work, and will keep on working are the policemen and EMTs that pick up the pieces at red-lights and intersections. I guess statistical analysis would be too much to ask for in the consideration of a reasonable road building policy.God forbid that Mr. Maier should have to contend with a roundabout instead of the probability that he’s gonna get smashed at the next intersection.

Mr. Maier reminds me of a true story, related to me by my late, sainted mother. She had a friend, a lady that I know, who drives to this day. Her confidence is waning, however, and the busy streets and highways confuse her. Her adaptation to her condition is to never turn left at an intersection. For her, life on the highway is a series of right turns. Can you imagine her driving? Imagine the logistical gordian knot as she plots her way from her house to the grocery store to the pharmacy to the doctor’s office to home…For her, the roundabout would seem like an answer from God.

How about this:

Roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections for a simple reason: By dint of geometry and traffic rules, they reduce the number of places where one vehicle can strike another by a factor of four. They also eliminate the left turn against oncoming traffic—itself one of the main reasons for intersection danger—as well as the prospect of vehicles running a red light or speeding up as they approach an intersection to "beat the light." The fact that roundabouts may "feel" more dangerous to the average driver is a good thing: It increases vigilance. It’s unlikely the average driver killed or severely injured in a high-speed "T-bone" crash as they drove through a green light felt much risk. In addition, drivers must slow to enter a roundabout: Placing an obstacle in the center makes this not only a physical necessity but visually disrupts the speed-encouraging continuity of the street. Motorists also travel through a roundabout more slowly than they would a traditional intersection: Roundabouts are typically built using what’s called "negative superelevation," meaning that water flows away from the center and also that the road slopes against the direction of a driver’s turn. As a result, any crashes in a roundabout take place at lower speeds and are thus less likely to be fatal. While roundabouts can be more costly to install than other kinds of traffic controls, such calculations don’t take into account the fact that reducing fatal crashes also reduces social and monetary costs.

People may see vehicles winding slowly through a roundabout and think the intersection must be 1) adding to congestion and 2) slowing down people’s travel times. But travel speed at any given moment should not be confused with overall travel time. Drivers may breeze through one intersection’s green lights only to sit through a 90-second cycle at the next. What’s more, the "protected turning movements"—i.e., the green arrows—required at many intersections steal time from the larger numbers of people wanting to proceed in every other direction. Roundabouts slow but rarely stop traffic. A noteworthy example here is Golden, Colo., which in 1999 converted a series of four formerly signalized intersections to roundabouts on a wide section of arterial highway that was becoming a major corridor for "big box" retail. While speeds between the intersections fell to an average of 37 mph from 47 mph, the time to travel the entire stretch of road dropped.

Accelerating from a dead stop is the least efficient thing a car’s engine can do. By reducing stop-start queuing—and eliminating it at "off-peak times," like the moments at 2 a.m. when you’re idling at a red-light at an near-empty intersection—roundabouts not only waste less time than traditional intersections but also less energy, as various studies have confirmed.

The left-turn lanes mentioned above not only waste time, they waste space. They’re merely a temporary parking lot for vehicles that could otherwise be moving. By removing the need for these lanes in every direction, roundabouts can consume less asphalt. (Having to cross fewer lanes is also safer for pedestrians.) Rather than serving as shrines to the paving industry, the centers of intersections can contribute to the overall aesthetic improvement of a neighborhood, while the slower approach and travel speeds (which also mean less noise) are a boon to any sort of street or neighborhood life outside the car.

There are few silver bullets when it comes to traffic, and roundabouts will not work everywhere. (Some intersections are already too busy to consider switching to the roundabout model.) Like anything, they can be poorly designed: You don’t want them to look as if someone simply traced "a circle around a coffee can" on a piece of paper, as one engineer has put it. Bad driving behavior can cause them to "lock up" (just as one driver "blocking the box" can freeze a four-way intersection). Yes, there will perhaps have to be some minor educational outreach—one Indiana town is weighing spending $24,000 to do just that—but a larger question here is whether people who cannot manage to merge at low speed into a counter-clockwise circle and, yes, perhaps even change lanes in that circle, before finding the correct exit should actually be holding licenses that enable them to operate heavy machinery in the first place.

It ought to be clear, dear reader, that we have the technology. We can solve the problem. Like all of life’s problems, all we need is the will to overcome our own fears and move on. Let Goethe provide our inspiration…

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."

What have we got to lose?



2 Replies to “Roundabout the Intersection”

  1. I am definitely with you on the roundabouts. As someone who works with planners on a regular basis, when I found out that they serve as a natural traffic calmer, meaning safer for kids playing nearby and people on bikes, I was rather confused why we don’t use them in ALL neighborhood areas. Apparently getting the roundabout in over by Ion was an ordeal!

  2. One of these days I’m going to the intersection on Lockwood where people turn left to cross the Ashley river Bridge and wait for the light to turn red. Then when one of those jerks run the light–I won’t have to wait long– I’m going to roll an old baby stroller in the road and hope the SOB runs off the road trying to miss it. If you think these guys piss me off you just might be right.

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