April 18, 2013

Terms for traffic circles cause confusion, as Maine roundabouts increase

Roundabouts, which are smaller, slower and thus safer than rotaries, are the way to go, experts say.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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

Today's poll: Roundabouts

Do you think roundabouts and rotaries are good traffic solutions?



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In this May 2009 file photo, cars pass through a roundabout along the Gorham bypass at the junction of Route 114. Roundabouts, which are smaller, slower and thus safer than rotaries, are the way to go, experts say.

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

"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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Roundabouts

Do you think roundabouts and rotaries are good traffic solutions?



View Results