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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: Spinning ’round and ’round

by Richard Mason | September 25, 2022 at 2:12 a.m.

I'm a big fan of roundabouts. The first in England was constructed in 1909. We are woefully behind, with 50 or so. Conway has the most at 31, and Fayetteville is a close second.

One of the best in central Arkansas is near the entrance to the Little Rock Zoo. It provides a great improvement in safety and the traffic flow center features "Lion Pride" by Darrell Davis, a top-notch piece of sculpture.

Compare that with a blank four-stop intersection, and you will wonder why the Arkansas Department of Transportation and city-county governments don't make roundabouts (also known as traffic circles) mandatory. If we added 1,000 roundabouts and installed sculptures or landscaping, they would improve safety, save money, and be great visual features.

I started thinking about roundabouts in El Dorado recently (the nearest one is south of Homer, La.) when I drove down Washington Avenue to Hillsboro Street where the 1925-era viaduct is going to be part of a four-lane U.S. 82 improvement.

ArDOT is going to waste an estimated $1 million to take down the viaduct, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Then they are going spend God knows how much to build another one.

El Dorado had 22 train arrivals per day in 1925, and now we have two or three, plus multiple rail crossings north and south. We should keep the viaduct, put in a roundabout, and save mega-millions. We could do what Europeans have done to old non-used bridges and put restaurants, bars, and shops around them; Little Rock should do the same instead of taking down the old I-30 river bridge.

When our kids were 13 and 15, we flew into Edinburgh, Scotland, to begin a two-week driving vacation.

We ended up in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, and I spent a lot of driving time on one-lane roads with pullouts to let oncoming cars pass, which makes for cautious driving.

We picked up our rental car in downtown Edinburgh, and drove into heavy traffic on the left side of the road. Immediately the street intersected a roundabout. With the kids and Vertis yelling instructions, I pulled into a stream of traffic and immediately spotted the yield sign. Of course I yielded, and kept on yielding as we whizzed by our exit with "That's our street!" being shrieked all around. I circled five times before managing to exit. That's when I learned you yield when entering, and have the right-of-way when exiting.

Roundabouts are a safer alternative to traffic signals and stop signs. The tight circle of a roundabout forces drivers to slow down, and the most severe types of intersection crashes--right-angle, left-turn and head-on--are unlikely.

Roundabouts improve traffic flow by increasing road capacity up to 50 percent and are better for the environment. Studies have shown a 90 percent reduction in fatalities, 76 percent fewer injuries and a 30-40 percent fall in the number of accidents involving pedestrians.

Researchers at Kansas State University found that average delays were 65 percent less at roundabouts than at signalized intersections. Wisconsin, which with 500 has the most roundabouts of any state, credits them with a "significant" reduction in road fatalities. Each roundabout is also reported to save the state around $5,000 a year in the state's electricity bill.

"We see fatalities and serious injuries almost go down to nothing in roundabouts," Andrea Bill of the Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The average roundabout has eight points of potential collision, compared with 32 at a normal four-way intersection, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. And they are safer for pedestrians because drivers have to slow down to use them.

The UK boasts 25,000 roundabouts, the most in the world as a proportion of road space. (France has more in total.) Jeff Shaw, intersections program manager at the Federal Highway Administration, explains that the better safety record of roundabouts in the U.S. has meant that they are now the default option.

"We don't mandate the construction of roundabouts, but we strongly encourage and incentivize it," he says. The number of roundabouts in the United States has doubled in the last decade to around 5,000, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, from 18 in 2005.

"The slower speed and angle at which cars approach roundabouts has a profound impact on the severity of any collision that might occur," says Shaw, who is also convinced that roundabouts move traffic more efficiently.

"Roundabouts are quintessentially English and democratic in their etiquette," says Kevin Beresford, president of the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society. The group's Best of British Roundabouts calendar is a best-seller. "A roundabout is an oasis in tarmac. It gives city councils an opportunity to put a garden in the middle of a road junction, and all for a fraction of the cost to install traffic lights."

Let's don't be 48th in roundabouts; we can do better.

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