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Around and Around We Go

The number of traffic circles being built in the Capital Region is dizzying, but is the new trend safe for motorists and pedestrians?

by Erin Pihlaja on August 23, 2012 · 2 comments

There’s a scene in the 1985 movie National Lampoon’s European Vacationwhere the bumbling father, Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase), drives his family through a traffic circle in London on their way to a hotel. Griswold must make a left exit from the circle to get to his destination, but can’t seem to cut across the exterior lane. On the first pass, he excitedly points out Big Ben and the British Parliament to his wife and two children. On the second time around, he indicates the same landmarks, at which point his wife rolls her eyes. During the third circle, his children cut him off mid-sentence: “We know. Big Ben,” they drone in unison. After side-swiping a passing car on the fourth round, Griswold says, “Look, kids . . . forget it.” Day gives way to night with both children asleep in the back seat, his wife curled up in the front, and Griswold still in the interior lane. This is Chase at his best, maniacally half-crying, half-laughing, “It’s amazing, I cannot get left!”

Around we go: A modern roundabout in Bethlehem. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

While traffic circles are widely used in Europe, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that circles, or rotaries, began to appear in the United States. Construction of one of the earliest ones, New York City’s Columbus Circle, was completed around 1905. One of the oldest traffic circles in the Capital Region is the Latham Circle at the intersections of U.S. Route 9 and N.Y. Route 2 in Colonie. It was built around 1934, and in 1958 an underpass was constructed beneath it so those traveling on Route 9 could avoid it. It was renovated again in 2002.

Traffic circles are unique in that traffic flows inward from perpendicular streets, and entering cars are often slowed or stopped before reaching the circle by traffic lights or signs. Once inside, the flow then works its way around a center island that is sometimes accessible to pedestrian traffic. The scale of a traffic circle is usually rather large, which allows vehicles to drive faster through them but also limits the type of intersections to which circles can be added.

The intention behind the traffic circle was to ease congestion and decrease accidents, and the same is true of a modern roundabout. These newer intersections are not always circular in shape, and the traffic entering must yield to the traffic already on the inside. There is still a center island but, in most cases, pedestrian access is restricted. The diameter of the roundabout is smaller than a traditional traffic circle, and its entrances are curved. According to the New York State Department of Transportation’s website, “The number of roundabouts constructed in the U.S. is relatively small. Those that are currently in operation have been reported to be performing favorably, when compared with conventional controlled intersections (i.e., stop signs or signals), in terms of improved safety, shorter delays, increased capacity, and improved aesthetics. Early results generally indicate that roundabouts have resulted in an overall reduction in the number and severity of accidents, despite the initial concern that lack of familiarity with this type of intersection would lead to driver confusion.”

Still, the acceptance of roundabouts in American culture has been slow, and like their predecessor, the early traffic circle, roundabouts have had their share of negative publicity.

“Everybody hates roundabouts,” says Brian Larson, a driving instructor who has been driving for 45 years and teaching since 1985. When Larson introduces a new driver to a roundabout, he sees an immediate reaction. “Their faces go white. They act like it is a death defying act—they’re terrified.” It isn’t only inexperienced drivers who have fear and confusion in roundabouts. Larson says that older drivers and foreigners find the intersections difficult to navigate as well.

There are tens of thousands of roundabouts in Europe and only hundreds in the United States, but American roundabouts are getting more and more popular. Lately it seems as though every new intersection in the Capital Region is designed as one. Mary Rozak, the director of communications for Albany County, says that roundabouts are considered whenever it makes sense and is feasible. “When the volume of traffic calls for one, where it can alleviate congestion so that it moves quickly and safely through that area, we consider a roundabout,” she says. She cites the recently constructed roundabout off of exit 2 from interstate 90 as a successful renovation to a historically problematic intersection.

But the additions of roundabouts have not always made things better. In June 2011, the Albany Times Union reported that accidents had gone up in two areas where the structures had been built. According to that investigation, “In Malta, the roundabout at Route 9, Route 67 and Dunning Street went from an average of 7.8 crashes a year before the rotary to 45.7 a year afterward. In Bethlehem, the number of accidents at New Scotland Road and Route 140 jumped from an average of 9.6 a year to 38.3.” Data also seemed to show that roundabouts with multiple lanes were more dangerous than those with singular lanes, and those built by counties and towns had more accidents than those built by the state.

When asked how to successfully (safely) conquer a roundabout, Larson gives all of his students the same advice. “Watch and see who is in your lane. Stay to the right and keep your eyes open to see which lane goes where. If you miss an exit, just go around another time,” he says. “It just takes a little more planning.”