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Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009 04:26 pm

Going ’round and ’round:

Roundabouts and the accident problem at Lawrence and MacArthur

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Neighbors are convinced most accidents at this intersection are caused by reckless driving.

For years the noise of vehicles colliding has been making the cats nervous around the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Lawrence Avenue. And for years the City of Springfield and residents on Springfield’s near west side have disputed how best to reduce the number of accidents. The city’s traffic engineers, like most of their guild, believe that every intersection can be made safer by adding new turn lanes and lights. The neighbors insist that such changes will only make things worse. The stalemate has lasted for years, and no one is happy about it except body shop proprietors.

There is nothing in the design of this intersection that makes it especially dangerous. The general consensus among the neighbors — at least those represented by the Historic Westside Neighborhood Association — is that bad driving rather than bad engineering is the problem. The HWNA has looked at the problem like a good physician and proposed that less invasive procedures be exhausted before resorting to major surgery on the intersection. Since the problem, they believe, is caused by Springfield drivers’ bad road manners, such as racing on the yellow to beat red lights and failing to yield when making left turns, the solution is to re-time the traffic signals and add left-turn arrows on some lanes.

Perhaps the discussion should be not whether to redesign the intersection, but how to redesign it. One option seldom mentioned is a traffic control system that has worked in thousands of intersections, that eliminates the need to make left turns in the face of oncoming traffic, that reduces the temptation to run a red light or speed up as one approaches a changing light, that saves fuel and that encourages drivers to slow down without recourse to radar guns or speed bumps.

Yes, the European-style roundabout. No, not the traffic circles or other kinds of circular junctions so often depicted in popular films that offer a car or taxi trip across, say, the Place de l’Etoile in Paris as a comic misadventure. (With some reason, French car insurance companies have special coverage rules for drivers who venture onto it.) But these junctions are not roundabouts; like most of our recent governors, they look like but don’t function like the real thing.

A roundabout requires drivers to pay attention.

Americans who encountered roundabouts while traveling abroad often return with horror stories about having become trapped in a modern roundabout. (For those unfamiliar with the concept, drivers enter the intersection and move constantly to the right until coming to the street they wish to enter, leaving the roundabout by making a right turn. No one stops, save to yield on entering to cars already in the roundabout.) The fact that roundabouts may “feel” more dangerous to the average driver actually is a good thing, because it compels drivers to pay attention. The configuration of lanes demands that drivers slow down to 15-25 miles per hour in order to enter one, which reduces the number and severity of collisions.

This reduction in speed would not, however, materially slow those drivers who now rush through that intersection every afternoon to get home in time to catch the last of Judge Judy. Drivers slow down to move across a roundabout, but they never have to stop for lights as they do in a conventional signaled intersection, or wait to make turns. Cars thus get through a roundabout faster than they would through an intersection controlled by traffic lights.

Now, I am no more qualified to prescribe a roundabout for MacArthur/Lawrence than the traffic department is to correct my use of the semicolon. But I am qualified to wonder why roundabouts are so seldom considered as a traffic control option, even though they have worked well in other parts of the U.S. (They are especially popular in Seattle and Washington state.) Mere newness should not be an insuperable barrier to adoption, nor their European origins; Springfieldians now consume cappuccinos without compromise to their dignity or their politics, which was unthinkable even 20 years ago.

A graver problem might be that our conventional traffic control systems have made roads safer at the cost of making drivers stupid. Signals and signs spare the driver of the need to think, the thinking already having been done by the engineers. In a roundabout, in contrast, the driver must think. There are no signals to tell her what to do.

Also, U.S. driving differs from European in the same ways that our me-first lifestyles differ from the European. The driver in a roundabout must take the movements of other vehicles into consideration, and yield to them. U.S. drivers tend to see road space as a good to be consumed, not a space to be shared. As long as they do, roundabouts are likely to be resisted here for the same reasons that they are needed.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.