Drivers confounded by circular logic


January 29, 2002|By Jody K. Vilschick | Jody K. Vilschick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DRIVERS ARE going around in circles all over Howard County, and, apparently, some of you are not happy about it.

It's something we're going to have to learn to live with, though. As of September, Howard County has more than 25 modern roundabouts at state-maintained intersections, in addition to the 10 or so the county has installed, not counting the mini-roundabouts on small residential streets. Given this proliferation of circles, many of you, like Charley McCullough of Ellicott City, have expressed concern.

"Drivers in Howard County don't know how to use traffic circles. They stop before entering them, even if there's no traffic on the circle, wander around them in random patterns and exit whimsically, often from the inner lane. Drivers who attempt that kind of navigation on one of Washington's circles - DuPont Circle at rush hour, for example - would die unmourned," says McCullough.

What rankles Ellicott City resident Randall Bradford is that many drivers "never get used to the roundabout requirement of yielding to traffic in the circle, and just drive right in without yielding. Others have the attitude, `I can beat you into the circle' and just try to beat everyone else through, without regard to safety." He believes in tried-and-true forms of intersection control: "A stop sign is pretty well cut-and-dried and well defined," he says.

However, according to State Highway Administration spokeswoman Lora Rakowski, roundabouts are the safest option for intersections. "Roundabouts are safer than [traditional] intersections. They eliminate the potential for head-on collisions - one of the deadliest forms of accidents," she says.

Modern roundabouts follow design principles that are much different from those of the traffic circles built during the first half of last century. The older-style traffic circles often gave priority to entering vehicles - think of Washington circles. For this reason, those traffic circles often were 400 feet or greater in diameter. Modern roundabouts force vehicles through a relatively tight arc, causing them to slow, contributing to the good safety record of modern roundabouts.

In Maryland's intersections with roundabouts, crashes resulting in injuries have been reduced by 80 percent, compared with the accident history of the conventional intersections they replaced, according to Rakowski. The safety of roundabouts is attributed to slower speeds through the intersection (typically 15 mph to 20 mph) and to the reduction of conflict points.

At conventional intersections, the driver needs to observe traffic from the left, the right and straight ahead before attempting to make various movements. Because all traffic in the roundabout comes from the driver's left, drivers must look only in that direction and yield to traffic from the left.

McCullough notes an irony about drivers' confusion: Driving through roundabouts is actually very simple. The SHA agrees and has provided these tips. Please share them with everyone you know.

Yield to traffic in the circle.

Enter when clear.

Traffic flows to the right, or counter-clockwise, around circles.

Never turn left into circles.

Don't stop in the circle when you have the right-of-way.

But McCullough wonders, "Is there any way to educate the citizenry about circles, or are we doomed to continuous displays of rugged individualism?"

You can lead a horse to water, Mr. McCullough, but you can't make it drink. All circles are posted with signs indicating that drivers should yield to traffic in the circle - which would imply that if you are in the circle, you should continue to your exit without stopping.

Logic dictates most of the other roundabout rules, such as not turning left into the circle. Nevertheless, I've seen a driver of a mowing-service truck, trailer and all, turn left into the circle at Routes 104 and 100, apparently because he was too lazy to navigate the whole way around the circle. And one kindly but misguided driver stopped in the middle of the same circle once, to wave me in. I shook my head and refused to go. She eventually got the message.

Rakowski notes other benefits of roundabouts, not the least of which are reduced delays getting through intersections and lower maintenance costs - approximately $3,000 per year per intersection. That's your tax dollars being saved folks.

Next week: What to do in two-lane-wide roundabouts, and the future of the Route 216 roundabouts.

What's your driving dilemma? Contact Jody K. Vilschick at elison Technophobes can mail letters to Traffic Talk, The Sun in Howard County, 5570 Sterrett Place, Suite 300, Columbia 21044, or send faxes to 410-715-2816.

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