General acceptance of roundabouts is likely to increase in time but the safety benefits of them might not, at least not without some public education.
That warning came up during a state Assembly Transportation Committee hearing Tuesday on Assembly Bill 275, which would prevent the Wisconsin Department of Transportation or counties from building roundabouts without first obtaining approval from the city or village where the construction is to take place. The author of the bill, state Rep. David Craig, R-Big Bend, said he is not opposed to roundabouts but thinks local officials and the people they represent should have a say.
Testifying in opposition to the bill, Tom Rhatican, WisDOT assistant deputy secretary, said studies have established that the public tends to be skeptical of roundabouts at first but those feelings fade after they are built. He also said it is well established that replacing standard intersections with roundabouts leads to an increase in the frequency of fender benders but a decrease in the number of crashes that lead to serious injury or death.
Making those safety benefits known, Rhatican said, is one of the best ways of winning acceptance for roundabouts.
The big question then, he said, is: What will happen with time? Rhatican said there are two possibilities: Either drivers will become more familiar with the roundabouts and minor crashes will become less common, or drivers will become overconfident and start taking unnecessary risks.
“Sometimes,” he said, “they become so familiar that they are driving too fast.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory is searching for answers to questions such as Rhatican’s. Andrea Bill, traffic safety engineering research program manager at the laboratory, said fender benders tend to occur most often in roundabouts when vehicles are switching lanes or trying to enter or exit.
Still, “it’s too early to tell,” she said, if those dangers will increase or decrease with time.
The construction of roundabouts has been moving at a fast pace in Wisconsin. The state now has about 280, according to WisDOT, and nearly 300 more are expected to be built by the end of the 2015 construction season, according to a report released in November by the Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory.
The same study found that the construction of roundabouts led to a 38 percent decrease in the number of accidents causing death or serious injury and a 12 percent increase in all crashes. To reach its conclusions, the laboratory considered 30 roundabouts built before 2008, allowing it to analyze crash data from the years before the installation and at least three years after.
Ash Anandanarayanan, transportation policy analyst for the Madison-based environmental group 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, said the results confirm what Europeans have learned from their use of roundabouts for decades. He said he was not surprised there was a decrease in fatal or serious injuries.
Regular crossroad intersections, Anandanarayanan said, put drivers at risk of being t-boned or even hit head on, especially when they are making left turns. Roundabouts, in contrast, keep traffic moving in the same direction, greatly reducing the chances that one of the more dangerous sorts of collisions will occur, he said.
About the worst that can happen, he said, is sideswiping.
“It removes the left turn,” Anandanarayanan said. “That really reduces the risk of serious injury.”
1000 Friends of Wisconsin generally takes positions supporting local control, said Steve Hiniker, president of the organization, but he cannot help being skeptical of the motives of those promoting AB 275. Because the safety advantages of roundabouts are so well known, he said, he only can guess that lawmakers want to put up obstacles to their use merely to pander to voters who might object to something unfamiliar without fully understanding the benefits.
Still, he said he doubts the adoption of AB 275 would bring the construction of roundabouts to a halt. More likely, he said, is that it would force WisDOT officials to spend more time trying to make sure the public understands the benefits of the intersections.
That, Hiniker said, would be good.
“We think the state,” he said, “should be in the business of promoting safety first.”
Rhatican said WisDOT is planning to do just that. He said the department will hold a series of meetings in spring and summer to inform the public of the safest way to go through roundabouts.
“We are trying both to work with inexperienced drivers with the education process,” Rhatican said, “and work with the driver community.”Follow @TDR_WLJDan