Roundabouts. It's such a cute, innocent name. Yet lots of Connecticut drivers dread them as vicious, confusing, frightening traffic whirlpools that could suck them into mayhem and misdirection.
And that's too bad. Replacing regular traffic-light or stop-sign intersections with well-designed roundabouts can cut fatal accidents by an astounding 90 percent and all injuries by 76 percent, according to federal reports. They also improve traffic flow and help the environment by cutting air pollution from stop-wait-and-go intersections.
But that persistent anti-traffic-circle attitude is a key reason why Connecticut has so few of these roadway marvels. At the moment, experts say there are only 4 of these new-style roundabouts on state highways and perhaps a dozen or so on local roads around Connecticut.
"To get the public to accept them is probably the biggest challenge," says Will Britnell, a top engineer with Connecticut's highway design unit.
Connecticut isn't alone in failing to take advantage of roundabouts. A federal traffic expert estimates the entire northeast is lagging behind the rest of the nation, with less than 100 roundabouts in this part of the country compared to more than 1,100 across the rest of the U.S. European countries are way ahead of us in using them to speed up traffic flows, cut pollution and slash intersection accident rates.
The advantages of these little traffic circles are so overwhelming that we're very likely to see a lot more of them around here in the future, experts say. And here's the strange part: once people actually go through these roundabouts a few times, they think they're bloody marvelous.
"Shortly after construction was finished," Ellington First Selectman Maurice Blanchette says of the roundabout put in recently at his town's "Five Corners" intersection, "I had people come to me and say this was the best thing that could have happened over there."
The chief reason why motorists think they don't want them is because they're seriously confused about the difference between "roundabouts" and old-fashioned "rotaries."
It's the rotaries — big, high-speed, multi-lane monsters that you can find in places like Cape Cod — that have left motorists with such nasty feelings about traffic circles. (There are still some of those rotary bad boys around Connecticut, such as the one at the intersection of Routes 2 and 184 in North Stonington, a famous landmark for folks in this state heading for the Rhode Island beaches.)
Modern roundabouts are far smaller than old-fashioned traffic circles, which helps keep traffic speeds down. A roundabout is rarely more than 150-feet across, compared to rotaries that can span 500 feet. Rotary traffic speeds can be frightening, while cars and trucks in roundabouts rarely get up past 20 or 25 mph, experts say.
Another huge safety difference is that motorists going around old-style rotaries or traffic circles are usually required to yield to drivers entering the circle. It's reversed with roundabouts, where drivers entering the circle pattern must give way to vehicles already in the roundabout pattern.
And roundabouts generally have just one lane, Britnell points out, and multi-lane roundabouts are designed to prevent the weaving and lane switching that have helped give those old rotaries such a scary rep.
"I don't think the public makes the distinction," says Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
One study proposing roundabouts for several locations in central Connecticut cited a New York transportation survey's finding that, before a roundabout is built, only about 12 percent of drivers like the idea while 29 percent generally hate the concept.
But once a roundabout gets completed, the New York research discovered, the "high acceptance" rate boomed up to 55 percent and the "low acceptance" rate of people who call the roundabout plan a stinker shrank to just 3 percent.
That's been the experience here in Connecticut as well.
Ellington's Blanchette recalls that there were lots of worries when the DOT wanted to put in a roundabout to replace the complex intersection between Routes 286 and 74, Skinner Road, Pinney Street and Windsorville Road. Traffic at the five-road intersection was all controlled with stop signs.
"It was really getting congested," says Blanchette, who adds the mentality of a lot of people was to "avoid that if you can" because of the confusing traffic. "Everything was coming at you from every direction," he remembers. Amazingly, the Five Corners didn't produce a whole bunch of accidents, probably because folks were too afraid to ignore other vehicles.
Despite those traffic headaches, Blanchette says the idea of a roundabout got people worried that "this was going to be difficult, and basically asking why the state was doing this."
The switch in attitude was dramatic after people began to actually use the roundabout. "There is much less angst for people going through there... I haven't had a single complaint for a while," Blanchette says.
Kevin Lyden says Salem's experience with the new roundabout at the intersection of Routes 85 and 82 wasn't much different than Ellington's, except that the Salem junction was a lot more dangerous.
Lyden is the town's first selectman, and he says there "was some resistance" in Salem when the roundabout was proposed but that residents were aware that something had to be done about safety. For one thing, the intersection was getting 15,000 vehicles a day coming off the unfinished Route 11 highway on their way to and from New London.
In the five years before the federally funded $3.5 million Salem project got under way, there'd been 119 accidents at that location, state records show, resulting in 43 injuries. "There was a death there [during that period] and several critical accidents," according to Lyden.
"Change is always difficult for people," he adds, "and people here were a little leery."
Yet Lyden says Salem "locals got used to it fairly quickly... I'd say it's been well received by local people."
There have been a few scary incidents, according to a New London Day report of a Salem meeting back in April when officials reported seeing occasional motorists "completely adrift" in the roundabout.
Lyden thinks those people were outsiders completely unfamiliar with roundabouts. "We have people coming in from Hartford," he laughs, "and I want to ask them, 'Do you know what "yield" means?'"
One of the major advantages to roundabouts is that the only direction a driver entering the circle has to pay attention to is his or her left, which is where all the circling traffic is coming from.
Just about the only downside to roundabouts, according to various reports, is that they seem to result in slightly higher accident rates for bicyclists. Britnell says there is conflicting research on the issue, but that the problems appear to be focused on roundabouts that have multiple lanes. He insists that's a problem that can be overcome by educating both drivers and bikers.
Pedestrians, on the other hand, seem to do far better with roundabouts. "There's never been a pedestrian fatality at a U.S. roundabout," Britnell says, "since 1980 when the first modern roundabouts were installed in this country."
In 2004, the state put in its first new-style roundabout in West Haven (at the intersection of Route 162 and State Road 705, more commonly known as Ocean Avenue and Jones Hill Road). Since then, the DOT has revamped the old high-speed rotary at Routes 80 and 81 in Killingworth, and installed the roundabouts in Ellington and Salem.
More are on the way, according to Britnell, including one in design right now for the intersection of Routes 110 and 111 in Monroe. That's another of the older rotaries that state officials plan to convert to a more sensible, safer roundabout.
Britnell doubts that Connecticut will ever see as many roundabouts as there are in England and other European countries.
He says that's partly due to the fact that roundabouts take up slightly more space than traditional intersections. Many intersections in highly urbanized Connecticut have buildings crammed up close to the roadways, making it tough to squeeze in a roundabout.
"I do think we'll see a lot more [roundabouts]," says Britnell. "Whenever we're going to put in a traffic signal at an intersection for the first time, I hope we'll also be considering roundabouts."