The first time I drove through a two-lane roundabout I was a bit stunned.
Not at how awkward or strange it was but the fact I got through the intersection with such ease.
The roundabout was the one San Joaquin County installed at 11th street where Kasson Road and Grant Line Road meet east of Tracy. Due to increased truck traffic from nearby distribution centers as well as an upswing in vehicle traffic overall, the county weighed putting in traffic signals or the roundabout. They came to the conclusion the safest option as well as the one that would keep traffic moving, cause less frustration, and have the added bonus of reducing air pollution given stop and go movements as well as idling are the most insufficient time gasoline burns was to go with the roundabout.
I know that is not what a lot of people think.
But something happened just a month later at that roundabout that had been in place just over 11 months at that point that should change their minds if they let go of their prejudice against roundabouts for even a minute.
On my way to the Tracy InShape on 11th Street I came upon the roundabout that had a late model sedan smack dab on top of the landscaped area. If you have ever seen the 11th Street roundabout you could easily park three cars bumper to bumper across the raised area that has been appropriately topped with drought resistant shrubs.
People had already pulled over to help. The apparent driver was standing next to the vehicle yelling. I couldn’t quite make out everything he was saying as I drove by but the words “stupid” and “roundabout” was among them as well as a word that started with the letter “f”.
The first reaction most of us might have is that it is proof positive that roundabouts are dangerous. But then if you stop and think, the real problem was the guy standing there cursing the roundabout.
It was 11 a.m. on a bright and clear May morning without a cloud in sight. There were warning flashers atop signage that a roundabout was up ahead so even if you hadn’t been driving that particular section of 11th Street for the past 11 months you were being alerted there was something ahead. The speed limit signs clearly reflect a slower speed than 55 mph that is in place on all sides of the roundabout starting about a quarter of a mile away.
And then there was the issue of the roundabout itself. If you were paying attention to driving you couldn’t miss it. I have no idea whether they guy was texting, impaired, daydreaming, taking in the scenery, reaching down to retrieve his phone, shaving, reading a map, or simply off in la-la land. But one thing I do know that even he can’t dispute. He wasn’t paying attention to driving.
In Manteca there have been a few unpleasant encounters with roundabouts although they’ve been restricted to the more pedestrian one lane roundabouts. In one case the beef was over the fact it was new and the driver wasn’t expecting it therefore the city had created an unsafe situation. More than a few people agreed.
The argument is weak given if you replaced the word “roundabout” with the words “young mom pushing a baby stroller” in reference to what was in the middle of the road and not simply stepping into the path of a vehicle, most of those slamming the roundabout would not slam the mother and young child that were plowed into especially when you toss in excessive speed at the time of impact.
There are more than a few people that dislike the city’s two-lane roundabout on Louise Avenue between Highway 99 and Cottage Avenue. It is somewhat tighter than 11th Street but then again the posted speed to travel through it are slower and it is not a part of two truck routes.
So why, you might ask, are roundabouts popping up more and more?
There is the cost factor. Starting from scratch and not at an existing intersection such as the one on Louise Avenue, they cost a bit less than the $500,000 plus it takes to install traffic signals. If hardscape is used, the maintenance cost for the traffic control device is virtually zilch. They continue to do their job even in a deliberate PG&E blackout.
Roundabouts drastically slash the number of T-bone collisions — the most severe accidents that lead to major property damage, serious maiming of people and even death. They do, however, see a jump in fender benders caused by — you guessed it — people ignoring posted signs and driving rules. The tradeoff between loss of life, crippling people, and causing major costly damage as compared to fender benders is deemed worth it for obvious reasons. One lane roundabouts, by the way, don’t see a jump in fender benders.
The two-lane roundabouts keep traffic moving instead of the stop and go at stop signs and traffic signals that frustrate drivers. In doing so it does reduce air pollution. They also makes it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross busy streets although I realize there are people out there who view those on foot crossing the street with disdain as if they are trespassers hopping a fence and taking a shortcut across their private backyard.
If the city has placed traffic signals on Louise Avenue instead of requiring the developer to put in the roundabout people would be howling about what a mess it created having another set of traffic signals that close to Cottage Avenue.
The truth is simple. The problem is not the roundabout — or any other traffic control device for that matter including those on the deadliest stretch of freeway/highway in the Northern San Joaquin Valley along the 120 Bypass. It is how we drive.
Driving is serious business. Most of us fudge posted speed limits. We also completely ignore at times California’s basic speed law that prohibits driving faster than conditions warrant. It is a sin many of us do almost on a daily basis whether it is driving the speed limit in fog with visibility down to zero, navigating heavy traffic of zipping past areas with a lot of pedestrians.
Forty-five years ago there was a church bus crash on narrow Highway 193 east of Lincoln. The driver was ferrying a group of teens from Chico headed to summer camp at Lake Tahoe.
The bus driver entered a curve lined with palm trees where the speed was posted for 35 mph. The CHP accident investigation experts pegged the bus speed at 48 mph at the time of impact. Two teens died.
The parents of the kids on the bus blamed the highway design and demanded it be changed.
A Caltrans engineer out of Marysville — a straight taking honest man if there ever was one — disagreed with that assessment.
There is no such thing as an unsafe road, he said. It is how we drive roads that make them unsafe.
If everyone who drives through a roundabout paid attention and followed the rules there would be no problem. As for those who still argue traffic lights are the better way to go, they basically exist because people often won’t follow the rules at intersections without them.
Some of our most horrific crashes today are people that run red lights.
You can engineer streets only so much to make them safer and more efficient for traffic flow which is why you are seeing more and more roundabouts. But as long as there is not 100 percent compliance with traffic rules, nothing is going to work all of the time.
What roundabouts do in such cases is reduce the odds of someone dying or getting severely injured when collisions do occur in a roundabout.