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More Crashes, Fewer Injuries: Are Roundabouts Worth It?

After the release of Madison’s 2016 Crash Report drivers are questioning the safety and functionality of local roundabouts. But Andrea Bill, a traffic safety engineer research program manager at UW-Madison, says a roundabout that may be unnecessarily large today is designed to accommodate growing traffic over the next 20 years.

“The areas coming into the city are great locations for roundabouts, it keeps traffic moving and moving safely,” Bill said.

An infographic showing roundabout statistics.
Click to enlarge.

The report shows on average more crashes in Madison, Wis., occur per roundabout then at stoplight controlled intersections. But these crashes are less severe and have only resulted in injuries, most of them minor. The single reported fatality occurred at a stoplight, and the majority of intersection injuries are severe.

“In short, more crashes, but fewer injuries,” Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert said in a recent article, “Unless we consider our vehicles’ health more important than our own, that’s a deal I’ll take.”

Bill’s research showed Wisconsin roundabouts have reduced injury and fatal crashes by 40 percent. Additionally, an increasing population of vehicles using these roundabouts may be affecting the crash report data.

“You have to be careful about just looking at raw data because what factors into crashes has a lot to do with volume,” Bill said. “The more volume you have, the more number of crashes you may have.”

Some Madison drivers would rather see more green, yellow and red than view-obstructing foliage and confusing turn lanes. Audrey Pendergast wrote in a recent opinion letter to the Wisconsin State Journal that she hopes a traffic engineer can fix the problem soon, and suggests adopting a model similar to European style roundabouts.

“In the U.S. we have two lanes and almost no one obeys the 15 mph speed limit,” Pendergast said. “In Europe there is one lane. As you enter the roundabout you may turn right, go straight or turn left. No need to worry if you are in the correct lane. No need worry if there is a car in the next lane.”

a roundabout on the UW-Madison campus.
A roundabout on the UW-Madison campus in Madison, Wis.

Bill says there is not going to be a solution that solves all roundabout problems at once. Although there was an average of 14 crashes per roundabout, versus 11 per intersection, the injuries were less severe.

“There isn’t a panacea,” Bill said. “So there’s these trade-offs.”

Rickert said he understands why Madison drivers aren’t too keen on roundabouts, but thinks they help drivers pay attention to the road and to their surroundings.

“My theory is that roundabouts are vilified because they force us to pay attention to the dull mechanics of driving in a country where driving has long been marketed as one part escape, one part mini-vacation,” Rickert said.

As a victim of a roundabout crash herself, Pendergast thinks something should be done to help limit the number of crashes. “It is costing the taxpayers a lot of money to handle these accidents,” Pendergast said.

The city is currently searching for creative solutions to reducing the number of accidents and traffic injuries. Engineering Professional Development at UW-Madison offers a certificate to help traffic managers and supervisors become a part of the solution. Additionally, Bill teaches a short course on innovative intersections that looks into creative traffic solutions. She also works for the Transportation and Operations Safety Lab at UW-Madison. For more information, or to see other certificates and degrees, visit epd.wisc.edu.

 

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