What's with all the roundabouts? - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

What's with all the roundabouts?


MADISON (WKOW) -- You may have noticed more roundabouts in southern Wisconsin in recent years and state officials tell us it's part of a state-wide trend.

The state Department of Transportation(DOT) tells us Wisconsin built its first roundabouts on the state highway system in 2004. Eight years later, the DOT has built more than 190 and has plans to add 64 more over the next three years. Those plans include roundabouts in Dane, Dodge, Monroe, Rock and Jefferson counties.

And that's not counting the roundabouts built or in the works at city and county intersections.

We spoke with some drivers who like them.

"I think they work very well," one Dane County driver told us.

Another said, "If people pay attention, I think it really eases the congestion in those intersections."

Transportation officials agree that roundabouts can keep traffic moving.

"With a roundabout, they process the vehicles faster, typically," says Patrick Fleming, a standard development engineer in the Bureau of Project Development at the Wisconsin DOT.

But they also believe roundabouts can be safer for drivers. 

"Roundabouts seem to be emerging maybe as the safety leader," says Jerry Zogg, the chief roadway standards engineer at the DOT's Bureau of Project Development.

Zogg says Wisconsin started looking at roundabouts when data showed the state was above the national average for crashes at intersections.

"Federal Highway has identified roundabouts as one of their nine proven safety counter measures," Zogg says.

But not all drivers like them. A post on our 27 News Facebook page generated more than 250 responses in one evening and many of those responding are not fans of roundabouts. 

Debra said, "They're a pain in the Rump!!!"

Jennifer wrote, "...I will drive around cities that have them..."

And Josh said, "I am suspicious of the claims that they are safer."

Which brings us to a City of Madison report from earlier this year that found three of the top five Madison intersections for crashes in the past year were roundabouts. 

But Zogg and Fleming point to statistics that show roundabouts cut down on serious and fatal crashes.

One study that looked at crash data at 24 intersections in the three years before and three years roundabouts were placed there. It showed a 9 percent reduction in overall crashes and a 52 percent reduction in serious crashes.

"So when we saw the results of that study," Zogg says. "Thinking back to why we got started with all this in the first place, it was pretty clear that roundabouts were meeting our primary objective of reducing sever crashes at intersections."  

They also think there's a learning curve and some drivers we spoke with agree.

"They're a little strange at first, but I don't mind them now," one Dane County driver told us.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found the number of drivers in favor of roundabouts almost double from before construction to one year afterward, from 44 percent to 87 percent. And a study by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program showed the number of drivers who said they are "very positive" about roundabouts went from 0 to 32 percent after construction.

But many motorists still have concerns about other drivers.

In response to our Facebook post, Janice said, "Most people don't know how to drive through them."

And Mike wrote, "If they are going to build more, then teach people how to use them."

Zogg and Fleming say the state has spent much time and money trying to educate drivers, putting roundabout guidelines in the Wisconsin motorists handbook, and in texts at public and private schools, among other things.

Transportation officials also meet with people in neighborhoods near spots where roundabouts are going in.

They explain that drivers should slow to the posted speed and note the signs that tell you the lane in which you need to be. But maybe the most important reminder for drivers entering roundabouts is to yield to all traffic inside. 

"What we've found is that is the major cause of a lot of crashes in roundabouts, is failure to do that yield correctly," Zogg said.

In the two-lane roundabouts, it's important to remember to yield to both lanes of traffic, since the traffic on the inside lane can either continue driving around and take a left or drive straight through.

We also asked the guys at the DOT if there was a cost difference between roundabouts and traditional intersections like traffic lights and four-way stops. They say it is always site specific but that costs are comparable.

And they stress they weigh a number of factors when trying to determine what type of intersection would be best for an intersection that is being designed or remodeled. 

The roundabout is, Fleming says, is "just one tool in the toolbox."

The DOT has a lot of information on driving roundabouts on its website.

Another good resource is the Safe Communities, which has a "traffic safety" tab on its home page.

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