Arkansas Drivers Merge Well with Others in a Roundabout Way

Call me a roundabout skeptic.

I was interviewing Andy Brewer of the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department about highway safety a few weeks ago, and he mentioned roundabouts. I mentioned how bad of an idea I believed roundabouts were, not because they’re bad logistically but because Arkansans do not merge well with others.

A roundabout, of course, is a circular traffic intersection where cars yield to cars already in the roundabout. All the traffic flows in the same direction with cars circling until they reach their departure point.

I remember when Fayetteville announced plans to put a roundabout at the intersection of Wedington Drive and Interstate 49, and it was such a horrible thought that my wife and I made immediate plans to move to another city if that ever happened. (It has not, and it appears the AHTD will instead install a cloverleaf exit, which is a 1,000 percent better idea.)

Anyway, that terrible idea aside, roundabouts have, in fact, turned out to be a pretty good idea for Arkansas. Yes, I’m as surprised as y’all because, you know, Arkansans don’t merge well with others.

Conway has been using them for years in a number of locations. I have to negotiate a roundabout by Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville every so often and, for four years, it has not been a nightmare at all.

It’s worth noting that when that roundabout opened, the city put out a video showing people how to use it. Brewer said the state Highway Department recently held its Arkansas Safety Summit to discuss traffic issues, and one of those issues discussed was whether to include roundabout instruction in driver education and testing.

So why the trend toward roundabouts? Well, statistics back up their safety.

In 2004, the Federal Highway Administration did a study of four-way intersections and reported 2.7 million collisions, 900,000 injuries and 9,117 fatalities.

The AHTD said roundabouts — obviously fewer than traditional four-way intersections — would result in 37 percent fewer accidents, 75 percent fewer injuries and 90 percent fewer fatalities.

The biggest safety factors come down to two circumstances: Roundabouts force vehicles to slow down to enter the circle, and once in the circle, cars are driving in the same direction so there are far fewer broadside- or head-on collisions.

“We definitely are doing more of those because there is a safety benefit because it forces people to slow down,” said Brewer, who is the AHTD’s assistant division engineer for transportation planning and policy. “There are some operational benefits. It’s not appropriate for all cases because it can only handle so much traffic.”

The Wedington intersection sees approximately 30,000 cars a day, many more than the AHTD believes a roundabout can handle safely.

Brewer cites other benefits of a roundabout. There are traffic signs for lane use but no traffic signals, which translates into about $5,000 in annual savings in maintenance.

Studies show the roundabout is also statistically better for traffic flow and the environment. The Federal Highway Administration said roundabouts increase traffic flow by as much as 50 percent compared with a traditional intersection.

For you green folks, better traffic flow means fewer idling cars and less gasoline consumption. The traffic flow is improved, experts say, because instead of waiting for a light to turn green, drivers have to wait only for a traffic opening.

Plus, anyone who has ever been stuck at a four-way-stop intersection knows there is always one driver who has no idea when to go and one driver who is going to go, his turn or not be darned.

Brewer said the AHTD recently did a study and decided on three more locations for roundabouts in northwest Arkansas, northeast Arkansas and southeast Arkansas. The device is a good replacement for four-way intersections with manageable traffic numbers.

“There are some other issues; they can take a bigger footprint,” Brewer said. “You don’t want to put them everywhere in a city. It can be good in rural areas. Other states, they’ve installed them on rural highways, even with trucks. I’ve driven them and they seem to work well.”

I know. I can’t believe it either.