Drivers may see a lot more roundabouts in Snohomish County
The intersections without signals can save time, fuel and lives, engineers say
Kevin Nortz / The Herald
Stephanie Jones, 18, stands at the intersection of Highway 92 and 127th Drive NE in Lake Stevens in late April. A year ago she nearly died after a collision with a dump truck at the intersection. Had there been a roundabout, engineers say, the wreck likely would have been much less serious.
Dan Bates / The Herald
Washington State Patrol trooper Brandon Porter investigates the wreckage after Stephanie Jones' Nissan Altima collided with a dump truck at Highway 92 and 127th Drive NE in Lake Stevens in June 2007.
The next, her Nissan Altima was broadsided by a dump truck pulling a trailer traveling about 60 mph. Investigators later determined she'd failed to yield the right of way. Her skull was cracked and she suffered multiple fractures. Her carotid artery, the major vein carrying blood to the head, was partly cut.
She was flown by helicopter to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Her condition was critical.
Somehow, she lived. Now, less than a year after the accident last June, she's almost fully recovered.
"The doctors couldn't figure out how I survived," said Jones, now 18.
Traffic engineers say if there had been a roundabout at that intersection with 127th Drive NE -- as has been envisioned -- and Jones had made a similar driving mistake, she likely would have been exchanging insurance information with the truck driver rather than fighting for her life in the intensive care unit.
In other accidents, roundabouts might have even saved lives.
More and more roundabouts are being built in Snohomish County, the state and the nation as alternatives to traffic signals and stop signs. Studies show they cut down on the severity and frequency of accidents, keep traffic flowing, reduce air pollution, save gasoline and are easier and cheaper to maintain.
"They move cars much more efficiently," said Mike Swires, a state Department of Transportation traffic engineer in Olympia.
Still, many criticize or are uneasy with roundabouts, which are fairly new in the United States.
Since 2001, six roundabouts have been installed throughout Snohomish County. As many as 20 more are planned.
One of those being considered is at the intersection where Jones nearly died. A couple of months before the accident, the city of Lake Stevens started talks with a developer and the state about removing the two-way stop sign at Highway 92 and 127th Drive NE and installing the city's second roundabout.
Since 1997, 115 roundabouts have been installed statewide and about 2,000 across the nation, according to Brian Walsh, a DOT traffic design and operations engineer.
Since then, no fatal accidents have occurred at any of the state's roundabouts, Walsh said. A few have occurred nationwide, he said, but all were single-car crashes where alcohol or speed were considered factors.
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Many people who have perished in head-on or broadside accidents at intersections -- similar to Stephanie Jones' wreck -- potentially could have survived if the intersection had been a roundabout, Walsh said.
That's not implying any liability, he said, and it depends on the intersection and other circumstances. Still, he said there have been many cases where "if a roundabout was there, we would not have had that death."
"The collisions really go way down," Swires said. "The severity, the injuries drop way off."
A roundabout is a type of a intersection where cars or trucks drive around a central circular area instead of going straight through or turning at a right angle. Roundabouts are different from traffic circles, which are common in neighborhoods.
Collisions that occur in roundabouts tend to be glancing blows at 15 to 20 mph rather than potentially high-speed, head-on or broadside smash-ups, experts say.
A 2000 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Kansas State University concluded that roundabouts reduce fatal crashes by 90 percent and injury collisions by 76 percent over stop signs or signals. The study looked at roundabouts in Nevada, Vermont and Maryland.
In Washington state, a DOT study of nine intersections before and after roundabouts were installed showed injury accidents dropped 73 percent.
Roundabouts have their detractors. Accidents, usually minor, can increase when a roundabout is first installed, primarily because drivers don't know what to do.
Ask Dorothy White, 19, who works as a barista at Walker's Coffee Co. in Marysville. Shortly after a roundabout was installed in 2005 at 108th Street NE and 51st Avenue NE, White was in a fender bender there. Her car was hit by a driver who failed to yield.
White believes roundabouts help the flow of traffic. "But there's too many people who don't understand the concept," she said.
The main thing to remember when entering a roundabout, traffic engineers say, is simply to look to the left. If someone's coming, wait for them to pass; if not, go. Another rule is to never stop inside the circle.
The Marysville roundabout is less than a quarter of a mile from Marysville-Pilchuck High School. Minor accidents increased at the intersection after the roundabout was installed, said Joe Legare, the Marysville School District's transportation supervisor. Accidents dropped after drivers got the hang of it, he said. Bus drivers love it because it keeps traffic moving, Legare said.
In Lake Stevens, people who aren't wild about the existing roundabout at Lundeen Parkway and Callow Road say it's because of drivers who don't know the rules.
"It's an accident waiting to happen," said Sonia Olson, 35, of Granite Falls, outside a mini-mall in downtown Lake Stevens. She frequently used the roundabout, built by the county in 2006 and later annexed into Lake Stevens city limits.
"People don't pay attention," Olson said. "They don't yield, they just go."
At the same mini-mall, Craig Jackson, 26, of Lake Stevens said he loves the roundabout. "You don't have to stop, except for the people who don't know what yield means and stop anyway."
For pedestrians, roundabouts are also safer and accidents that occur are usually at slower speeds, Walsh said. Several Marysville-Pilchuck students walking through the nearby roundabout after school one day recently said it works well for them.
Emily Ferwerda, 18, a senior, walks through it every day without any trouble, she said.
"I never really have to stop," she said.
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From an engineer's perspective, roundabouts move cars and trucks through intersection more efficiently. A roundabout can move 130 to 150 cars through an intersection in the same amount of time that 100 cars move though a traditional intersection, according to the county.
That can be seen from a driver's perspective as well.
Katie Jackson of Lake Stevens, Craig Jackson's wife, said they used to live near the Lundeen Parkway roundabout. Before it was installed, traffic frequently backed up several blocks, but not afterward, she said.
"I love it," she said. "It just keeps traffic moving."
Single-lane roundabouts are simple; some drivers find those with two or more lanes more difficult to navigate. In Snohomish County, only the roundabouts in Monroe and in front of the Tulalip Casino serve two lanes of traffic in each direction.
The Monroe roundabout, the county's first, has two lanes, but officials say it works well. After it was installed at 164th Street SE and Tester Road in Monroe in 2001, the state monitored the traffic flow afterward.
The location is close to Monroe High School. When school let out before, it took 20 minutes on average to drive half a mile, Walsh said. After the roundabout was installed, that average was reduced to a minute and a half.
Monroe police spokeswoman Debbie Willis agrees, saying the roundabout still moves traffic well.
Others aren't sold on the concept. Gold Bar City Councilwoman Dorothy Croshaw opposes the state's plan to possibly install up to three roundabouts on U.S. 2 in the town in the future.
The state identified 56 projects, including seven roundabouts, for the accident-plagued highway in a recent safety study. Overall improvements for U.S. 2 are expected to cost about $2 billion. No funding for the roundabouts has been approved.
"I'm totally against 'em," Croshaw said. She adds everyone with whom she's spoken agrees.
Truckers have told her they don't like them, she said.
Gold Bar Mayor Crystal Hill said she was opposed to the roundabout idea at first but has warmed up to it. Businesspeople believe roundabouts could improve access to the highway, Hill said.
"It was a bit of a hard sell for me," she said. "I think they can work. I think they have a lot of benefits."
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In addition to saving time and possibly lives, traffic engineers say, roundabouts also save on gasoline, maintenance costs and cut back on pollution.
Cars and trucks take less time to drive through them, idle and accelerate less and as a result use less gasoline.
Three computer studies done in the United States and one road test in Greece calculated a savings of up to 30 percent in fuel and pollutants, said Ken Sides, an engineer for the city of Clearwater, Fla. In most cases, it's 25 to 30 percent, he said. Another study, by Kansas State University in 2003, estimated the savings in emissions at between 38 and 61 percent.
That's for the short amount of time each car waits or drives through an intersection; it may seem small, but it adds up with thousands of cars going through the roundabout.
Because of this, roundabouts are a largely untapped resource in fighting the type of air pollution that some contend contributes to global warming, Sides believes.
Clearwater has installed six roundabouts since 2000 and is planning eight more, Sides said. Two of them are replacing formerly signaled intersections.
Roundabouts cost about the same on average to install as intersections with signals, officials say. A roundabout can run from $360,000 to $1.4 million, Walsh said, while an intersection with lights runs from $250,000 to $2.8 million.
Roundabouts cost about $5,000 less to maintain per year on average than traditional intersections, Walsh said.
That's one of the reasons three roundabouts are part of the design for the new Granite Falls bypass, a $32.6 million truck route scheduled to be built around the north end of that town.
"I thought from a maintenance perspective it would be more efficient," said Jim Bloodgood, Snohomish County traffic engineer.
Roundabouts aren't perfect for every situation, officials say. They're not as good on hills. Roundabouts at busy intersections need more lanes, which is a bigger adjustment for some drivers.
Roundabouts are most frequently installed at intersections being revamped or as part of new development, officials said. To take out a traffic signal to put in a roundabout often means taking up more space, which adds to the costs.
In Sultan, where the state has identified locations for three roundabouts as part of the U.S. 2 plan, City Councilman Jim Flower said there isn't room for them between the businesses on one side of the highway and the railroad tracks on the other.
"They are a good idea where you have room for them," he said. "Here, there's no room for them. Whose storefront are you removing?"
In general, officials say, improvements can be made to signalized intersections, such as adding turn lanes, though this takes as much or more space than a roundabout.
"We aren't going to be uprooting the system to install roundabouts because you're spending a lot of money up front," Walsh said.
A roundabout, he said, is "a tool, and it has its place in the system."
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Stephanie Jones doesn't remember her accident, but knows she was responsible for it. She's been told that the sun's glare on her windshield at the time of the early-morning collision might have kept her from seeing the dump truck.
She's spoken with elected officials about what she sees as the danger of Highway 92. Either roundabouts or turn lanes should be added for safety, she said.
"I think something needs to be done on all the major intersections of (Highway) 92," she said.
Plans for the roundabout at 127th Drive NE depend on the construction of a small commercial center on the southwest corner of the intersection, with the developer contributing to the cost of the roundabout. The developer, David Iseminger of Everett, said he's still planning the project but doesn't yet have a timeline.
Jones knows she was fortunate to survive -- "very," she says -- and the event has given her a new appreciation for life. She was told her slight build worked to her advantage to reduce the force in the accident.
"It kind of went through me," she said.
Still, she spent days in the intensive care unit with her cut artery and her skull cracked in three places. She had a punctured lung, a cracked rib and broken bones all over her right side including a broken hip, shattered elbow and chipped vertebra in her neck. The dump truck driver escaped with minor injuries.
The only remnants of the crash for Jones are a stent in her carotid artery -- a permanent fixture to prevent an aneurysm -- and anxiety around big trucks.
Her car was reduced to a wadded-up ball of metal. She has a new one now, a Volkswagen Jetta -- with "front air bags, side air bags, every air bag."
Jones still has to go through the intersection at 127th Drive NE and Highway 92 to pick up her boyfriend.
"I'm always hoping there are no dump trucks," she said.
Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Watch how cars should move through a roundabout from the inside and outside lanes, as well as what they should do to yield to emergency vehicles.|
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