Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Forget about politics. If you’re looking for a fight in Wisconsin, start talking about roundabouts.
The circular intersections that have been built all over the state tend to elicit passionate responses from drivers.
“You talk to friends and family and you run into a lot of (roundabout) haters,” said Jim Schwalen, a senior vice president at West Bend Mutual Insurance in West Bend. “It seems to be a polarizing topic. You either love roundabouts or hate them.
“It’s just an interesting topic.”
It’s also a big deal in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin has the most roundabouts of any state on its state highway system,” said Andrea Bill, a traffic safety engineer and researcher at the University of Wisconsin’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory.
Washington and Indiana might have more when you count roundabouts in municipalities. But when it comes to roundabouts on a state highway system, we’re tops.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation says there are officially about 500 roundabouts on the Badger state highways. The real number, though, is probably even higher, since WisDOT’s count does not include every local roundabout.
Bill has studied roundabouts for a decade, arriving at results that might come as a surprise to those who hate the traffic-calming systems. For one, the chances of being killed or maimed in a crash fall to almost zero in roundabouts.
“Overall, we see fatalities and serious injuries almost go down to nothing” in roundabouts, Bill said. “They don’t eliminate everything,” but they do “reduce, overall, fatal and injury crashes by a significant number.”
Yet, even though the chances of dying in a crash in a roundabout may be extremely low, Bill’s research has also found that the number of fender benders tend to increase in roundabouts.
There are a number of hypothesis about why that is happening, she said. Unfamiliarity is no doubt still a big culprit.
But for all the sophisticated research, the choice is fairly simple, Bill said.
“Would you rather have a tow truck or an ambulance come and get you or your family member?” she said. “While you might get into a minor fender bender, you’re going to come home at the end of the night vs. going to a hospital.”
But why all the hate?
There are no magic elixirs when it comes to road design, traffic safety and reducing the number of deaths on the state’s highways.
“We always have these trade-offs when we are thinking about our roadways and we have to make sure that we are thinking about it in terms of what we are trying to do,” Bill said. “We are trying to get to zero (traffic fatalities) in Wisconsin.
“We are trying to reduce those devastating crashes.”
Until we get to a foolproof automated world where self-driving cars or other advanced systems eliminate crashes altogether, we will have to settle on what works best at reducing serious crashes, she said.
It’s not just roundabouts that involve trade-offs.
Consider the cable barriers that are often seen stretching down the middle of interstate highways. Those prevent vehicles from crossing the median into oncoming traffic, a misstep that often results in head-on collisions that can seriously involve injure motorists.
At the same time, vehicles that might have simply run off the highway and then been driven back onto the road can instead get hung up in cable barriers and have to be removed using tow equipment.
“We always have these kinds of trade-offs” in traffic safety, Bill said.
Intersections always a concern
Intersections have always been the bane of motorists — and traffic engineers.
“Intersections are among the most dangerous and complex traffic features that drivers encounter,” according to the Wisconsin DOT. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 21% of all traffic fatalities and roughly 50% of serious traffic injuries involve intersections.
Not everyone is sold on roundabouts, however.
“Some people are really comfortable with roundabouts and some people aren’t still and so we have this experience level there,” Bill said.
Nor does everyone know how to drive in them.
“Some people might shoot the gap and some people might stop. That kind of difference between gap acceptance causes people to have rear-end crashes,” she said.
It’s at such times that crashes tend to occur.
“So, when people look at total numbers of crashes with roundabouts you might see some of those intersections go higher (after a roundabout is installed) but it’s important to really look at the severity of those crashes,” Bill said.
Contact Joe Taschler at (414) 224-2554 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTaschler or Facebook at facebook.com/joe.taschler.1.