Cathy McDonald can’t stand the rotary in Windham, where she lives.

“I think they’re inconvenient and a real pain,” she said of rotaries.

But what about roundabouts – like the one planned for the intersection of Windham Center and River roads?

“I always assumed rotaries and roundabouts were basically the same,” she said.

Rotaries and roundabouts both move traffic in a circle around an intersection, but they’re not just different names for the same thing. In fact, in terms of purpose, they’re opposites.

Rotaries are meant to keep traffic moving quickly, while roundabouts are supposed to slow it down, said Stephen Landry, assistant traffic engineer for the Maine Department of Transportation.

While it has been more than 40 years since larger, high-speed rotaries fell out of favor as a way to manage traffic intersections, smaller, low-speed roundabouts are cropping up around the state. The reason, say planners, is that smaller and slower means safer.

High-speed traffic and lane-changing in rotaries can lead to catastrophic crashes, experts say. Roundabouts reduce speed, making accidents less frequent and less severe than at rotaries and traffic lights.

When the Cony Circle in Augusta was converted from a rotary to a roundabout, the number of accidents fell by 60 percent, Landry said.

Only three rotaries remain in Maine — in Augusta, Kittery and Windham. The first roundabout was built in Gorham in 1997. Now, there are 22 — and more on the way.

Still, many people don’t know the difference.

“I’m not sure there is one,” said Cory Valentine of Portland. “Are they equally confusing?”

Jakob Battick said he is familiar with rotaries in Gorham and his hometown of Bangor. But both are actually roundabouts.

Though he said he had “no idea whatsoever” what the difference is, he noted that the circles sometimes seem to improve traffic flow and sometimes seem to make it more dangerous.

Jeff Pope said he thinks of a rotary as “a dangerous thing” and didn’t know that a roundabout is different. The bad rap of rotaries and a lack of understanding about roundabouts can incite public outcry when roundabouts are proposed.

Residents near the intersection of Route 302 and Duck Pond and Hardy roads in Westbrook have resisted the concept. The headline on a front-page article in a neighborhood newsletter called The Duck Pond Quack said: “A Roundabout at the Corner…. Are You Kidding?!?”

The article questioned how a roundabout would affect school buses, pedestrians, bicyclists and the landscape.

“And, ultimately, will this solution make our neighborhood safer for us?” it said.

According to Landry — and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — it should.

Unlike a four-way stop, a roundabout offers no opportunities for left turns — a common cause of crashes, Landry said.

And unlike a posted speed limit, which drivers choose whether to obey, a roundabout forces drivers to slow down, he said.

According to the insurance institute, several studies show that the number and severity of crashes are reduced when traffic signals or stops signs are replaced with roundabouts.

A study of high-speed rural intersections with stops signs on the side roads — like the one in Westbrook — showed that crashes went down by 62 percent and crashes with injuries went down by 85 percent, according to the institute.

The institute estimates that converting 10 percent of the nation’s intersections from traffic lights to roundabouts would have prevented 43,000 crashes, including 170 fatal ones, in 2011 alone.

It says that more than 1,700 roundabouts have been built in the U.S. since the first ones, in Nevada in 1990. They are more common in Europe and Australia.

Gorham, which Landry calls Maine’s “guinea pig” for roundabouts because it got the first one, now has five. But perhaps the residents’ familiarity with roundabouts has backfired.

The first roundabout, at routes 202 and 237, improved safety in Gorham’s Little Falls village.

There had been 18 accidents, six with injuries, from 1994 to 1996, the three years before flashing yellow and red lights were replaced with a roundabout.

From 1998 through 2000, there were just eight accidents, two with injuries.

In the past three years, from 2010 to 2012, there were 19 crashes, seven with injuries — more than before the roundabout was built.

Kitty Breskin, the engineer who designed the state’s first roundabout, went there recently to see what was happening, and found that people entering the roundabout were tailgating the vehicles in front of them and following them into the circle, rather than yielding to oncoming traffic.

Michele Gildard, who runs Lampron’s Little Falls Mini Mart at the intersection, said she sees it all the time.

“It can get pretty dangerous,” she said. “People are squeezing in behind each other. Instead of yielding, they’re just going.”

Greg Costello, crash records manager for the Department of Transportation, said he doesn’t think drivers in Gorham are confused; they just have found a loophole.

“If you find a way to cheat the system, people will do it,” he said.

The fact that that’s happening at a roundabout is an anomaly, say state officials, who point to three newer roundabouts, in Caribou, Bangor and Kennebunk.

Collectively, there were 26 crashes, eight with injuries, in the three years before those roundabouts were built. In the three years after, there were 15 crashes, one with injury, the officials said.

Landry said he thinks communities are sometimes resistant to roundabouts initially just “because they’re different.”

He presented more information to Westbrook residents at meeting last week. “When we left, more people were open to the roundabout option than when we started,” he said.

 

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com