Sunday, August 1, 2004

Look kids! Traffic circles proposed

By Travis Gettys
Enquirer contributor

Many Americans associate roundabouts with the misadventures of actor Chevy Chase, whose character cluelessly navigated a traffic circle in the movie National Lampoon's European Vacation.

Chase, playing hapless dad Clark Griswold, is unable to exit a roundabout in London, and repeatedly points out sights to his family as they circle for hours.

"Look kids - Big Ben, Parliament," Chase says in the 1985 comedy, but that experience isn't too far from reality for drivers unaccustomed to roundabouts.

"You merge, and it's natural to get into the flow, but it's hard to get out," said Barb Bonney of Newport, who has negotiated a roundabout in Bardstown, Ky.

Drivers might soon need to learn, because roundabouts, or road junctions formed around a circle with traffic moving in only one direction, have been proposed for several Northern Kentucky roads.

Two Fort Wright roads could get the circles, with one planned for the road that will connect Ky. 16 with Ky. 17, and roundabouts have been suggested in a long-range plan for the redevelopment of Ky. 17 near Interstate 275.

The idea has been floated in preliminary plans to rebuild Ky. 237 in Hebron and as a way to reduce the number of accidents on Dixie Highway, between Pike Street and Turfway Road.

Roundabouts are a common feature on roads in Europe and in the eastern United States, but few Kentucky roads use them as a way to keep heavy traffic moving smoothly.

"At one time they had been popular in the United States, but we're kind of seeing them come back," said Mike Goins, spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Many states and cities have turned to traffic circles as a way to alleviate traffic congestion, improve safety and improve community aesthetics, Goins said, with hundreds being built in the U.S. each year.

Maryland completed a study in 2002 of 15 single-lane roundabouts built in the state since 1995, and found a 68 percent reduction statewide in the number of accidents at intersections.

Accidents with injuries decreased by 81 percent, and fatal accidents at intersections fell by 100 percent, Goins said.

"For every dollar they spent on the projects, they received $15 in accident reduction benefits," Goins said.

The Federal Highway Administration, which instituted modern standards for roundabouts in 2000, found similar results in a national study, Goins said.

Roundabouts are not without some peril, however.

"When you put in (roundabouts), there is a learning curve," said Deputy Kenton County Judge-Executive Scott Kimmich.

Fender-benders often occur shortly after roundabouts are installed, Kimmich said, but the accidents are minor because traffic moves slowly.

Roundabouts' design actually provides fewer chances for collisions.

A four-way intersection contains 34 collision points, while only eight exist in a roundabout, said Keith Logsdon, deputy director for long-range planning for the Northern Kentucky Area Planning Commission.

A federal study found that roundabouts allow 30 to 50 percent more traffic than intersections, because drivers slow down, but they don't stop.

A roundabout on Reynolds Road in Lexington, Ky., eliminated the need for traffic lights at a busy intersection in a busy retail area, said Sgt. Dean Casey of Lexington police.

"You can make, essentially, what is a left-hand turn without disrupting the flow of traffic," Casey said.

The roundabout, built about five years ago, has caused only a few headaches, Casey said.

"People occasionally aren't quite clear how it works, (but) most people, after a time or two, can figure it out," Casey said.

Vehicles entering a roundabout must yield to circulating traffic, Casey said, which keeps cars in the circle moving at a steady rate.

Negotiating a roundabout is relatively simple, said Mike Bezold, branch manager for pre-construction for Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

"You just stay to the right at all times and continue to move at 15-20 mph," Bezold said.

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