Why Wisconsin caught roundabout fever
Wisconsin drivers, there’s a roundabout intersection ahead.
In 1999, only two roundabouts existed on county highways. In 2004, there were four roundabouts on state highways. Today they number about 50-75 on county roads and 200 on state highways. In four or five years, state roadways could have 100 more.
In a WisconsinEye interview, senior Wisconsin Department of Transportation engineers Jerry Zogg and Pat Fleming discussed the statewide growth of these controversial traffic circles. One is an option being explored for a Janesville exit when Interstate 39/90 is widened, and another is planned for part of the rebuilt Highway 41 to Green Bay.
Zogg and Fleming concede that Wisconsin drivers often get fearful when they hear that a roundabout is being considered for an intersection near them. But within a year, those same drivers either like roundabouts or are neutral on them, the engineers insist.
Time to play Questions & Answers on a transportation trend on which everyone has an opinion.
Q: Why the tremendous growth in the number of roundabouts on state highways?
A: More than 10 years ago, the Federal Highway Administration found that Wisconsin had a higher-than-average number of intersection crashes. Federal policy says roundabouts “prevent and reduce the severity of intersection crashes.”
State DOT officials then wrote a new manual stating that if an intersection is to be rebuilt with potential traffic lights or four-way stop signs, roundabouts must be considered as an “equal alternative.”
Q: Are roundabouts now DOT’s first choice when busy intersections on state highways are rebuilt?
A: No, but state officials make sure that roundabouts are “freely discussed” and considered. In some cases, because roundabouts have been proven to be safer, more federal money may be available to pay for them. DOT officials meet extensively with local elected officials and neighbors before making any final roundabout decision.
Q: Who says roundabouts are safer?
A: In 2007, University of Wisconsin researchers studied the safety records at 24 intersections for the three years before they were converted to roundabouts, and for three years after that conversion.
That UW study found a 52 percent reduction in “severe crashes,” which are defined as involving fatalities or injuries, and a 9 percent reduction in the number of crashes. There were also fatalities at the 24 studied intersections before roundabouts, and no fatalities in the three years afterward.
“We were able to cut (severe crashes) in half,” Zogg said. “That’s a pretty dramatic decrease.”
Q: Are there fewer injuries and fatalities in crashes at roundabouts because the vehicles are going slower?
A: Yes. Fleming said vehicles travel at about 18-19 mph in the roundabout, 22-23 mph as they approach it, and 24-25 mph as they exit the circle.
Fleming said roundabouts also save drivers time because they have to yield—and not stop—at them. Drivers get frustrated waiting at traffic-light intersections when there is no other traffic, he noted.
Q: Why did WISC-TV3 in Madison recently report that three of the five “most dangerous” city intersections in a year were roundabouts?
A: The DOT engineers said that news story got their attention, but all three involved roundabouts opened within the previous year or so—a period when “drivers are still getting used to them.”
Q: Why did the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently report that it will cost about $165,000 to rebuild a busy Waukesha County roundabout because trucks were having problems going through it?
A: It takes four of five years to design a roundabout, depending on how much additional right-of-way must be purchased, utilities that must be relocated and the intersection’s terrain. Roundabouts are built for a “design year” 20 years after they open.
When the Waukesha County roundabout was designed, DOT engineers didn’t know about a unique “clearance problem” with trucks that eventually would be using it.
Q: What do roundabout costs, and who pays for them?
A: They can cost between $750,000 and $1.5 million, which is about the same as an intersection with lights or four-way stop signs. The federal government usually pays 80 percent of the cost of a roundabout, with state funds paying the other 20 percent.
Q: What is the most common type of vehicle crashes in Wisconsin roundabouts?
A: Failure to yield. “You must yield to traffic in the circle,” Zogg said.
Q: What do Wisconsin drivers need to remember to safely make it through roundabouts?
A: Watch the signs as you approach a roundabout. Look to your left. Stay in your lane.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.