Plan meant to set drivers straight at traffic circle

Lane markers, signs due at Towson roundabout

December 04, 2003|By David Anderson | David Anderson,SUN STAFF

Curt Rehrmann navigates the Towson roundabout in his car every day. It's not an experience he enjoys.

The 20-year-old Cockeysville resident says he is cut off and stuck behind people moving at a snail's pace, and he becomes frustrated at motorists too timid to enter the flow of traffic.

"I just floor it and hope no one hits me," says Rehrmann, who works at Ridgely and Ferrens Marketplace on Allegheny Avenue, just west of the roundabout. "Working here, we see accidents all the time. They really ought to teach a driver's-ed class in using the circle."

Since opening in February 1998, the $4.4 million roundabout -- which brings together four major thoroughfares in the heart of the county seat -- has attracted criticism from motorists, who call it confusing and unsafe.

State transportation officials agree that accidents are a concern, but they say that the roundabout is an improvement over the intersection it replaced and that improvements will be made in the coming months.

"While the overall safety of the roundabout has been a success, we are concerned with the overall property damage that has occurred," said Randall Scott, an assistant district engineer for traffic with the State Highway Administration's district office in Brooklandville.

The number of vehicle accidents at the roundabout increased sharply after it opened in 1998 but declined last year.

In 1997, seven accidents were reported at the old intersection. The next year, the number doubled to 14 and in 2001, accidents peaked at 20. In 2002, the last year for which statistics are available, 10 accidents were reported, according to Baltimore County police.

Kellie Boulware, an SHA spokeswoman, attributed the early increase in accidents to higher traffic volume. From 1998 to 2001, the number of vehicles passing daily through the roundabout increased 8 percent -- from more than 48,000 to more than 52,000.

"It's good to see that the number of accidents is coming down, because it means people are becoming more aware of how to navigate the roundabout," she said.

The number of accident-related injuries also has fallen. SHA spokeswoman Frances Ward said that in the five years before the roundabout opened, 21 people were injured. In the three years after the opening, four people were hurt.

Scott said his agency hears complaints about the difficulty of getting off the roundabout. Most are from drivers who find it difficult to exit from the left-hand lane.

To correct the problem, the SHA will paint lane markers and place signs directing drivers wanting to exit at Dulaney Valley Road into the right lane. Drivers who want to continue past Dulaney Valley will be restricted to the left lane. A starting date for the project has not been set.

The roundabout -- really an oval -- connects York, Joppa and Dulaney Valley roads and Allegheny Avenue. At 200 feet in length it is the largest of approximately 45 roundabouts in Maryland, Boulware said.

Eugene Russell, a professor emeritus of civil engineering at Kansas State University, said roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections and traffic circles -- which are larger and allow higher speeds -- because drivers are forced to slow to about 20 mph as they approach.

"Worldwide, it's been shown that roundabouts are the safest form of intersection," said Russell, the past director of the Center for Transportation Research and Training, a team of KSU researchers that studies highway systems and gives presentations on roundabouts around the world.

When collisions do happen, they are typically minor "sideswipes," as opposed to a "right-angle crash," he said.

Russell added, however, that two-lane roundabouts such as Towson's can be more dangerous than the one-lane variety because lanes are not always marked and drivers have trouble exiting.

On any given day, a casual observer can watch a slew of nervous motorists try to get through the roundabout.

Recently, a Maryland Transit Administration bus on Allegheny started and stopped three times before a gap in traffic opened. A car trying to exit from the left-hand lane at York Road was cut off by a car in the right-hand lane.

Another car trying to enter from eastbound Allegheny refused to move, even though a gap had opened in the flow of traffic. The gap closed and the driver was stuck at the entrance.

Ada Wilson, a mail carrier, said one of her co-workers was involved in a fender bender about six months ago. Wilson, 53, said she avoids the roundabout when she starts her route but must go through it when she heads back to her home base.

"I hate it," the Parkville resident said as she loaded boxes of mail into her truck. "If everybody would just act human instead of blowing their horns and carrying on, it would be much better."

Brian Plunkett remembers a day three years ago when he was in the right lane trying to get off at Dulaney Valley Road when a car cut in front of him at the Joppa Road exit and smacked into his Honda, causing minor damage.

"To me, that's the most dangerous part," the 45-year-old Harford County resident and SunTrust Leasing Corp. employee said as he ate lunch at an Allegheny Avenue restaurant recently.

"If you're out here, depending on how long you're out here, you can see an accident or close to an accident."

Some motorists, however, see the roundabout as an improvement.

"I think it expedites the movement of traffic much better than before," said Steve Riley, 39, a Baltimore accountant. "I think it's great, I think it creates a town center."

Kansas State's Russell agrees.

"They're not for everywhere," he said, "but there's thousands of intersections in the U.S. that could use roundabouts."

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