Roundabouts: Love 'em, hate 'em ... but are they safer and easier to drive?

Do you know how to drive through a traffic circle?

The Washington State Department of Transportation explains how to safely navigate the multi-lane traffic circle, also known as a roundabout, at the intersection of Guide Meridian (SR 539) and Pole Road (SR 544).
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The Washington State Department of Transportation explains how to safely navigate the multi-lane traffic circle, also known as a roundabout, at the intersection of Guide Meridian (SR 539) and Pole Road (SR 544).

Drivers may complain about them, but Whatcom County roundabouts are reducing injury crashes and might be saving lives.

As a roundabout at a dicey Mount Baker Highway intersection east of Deming opened to traffic last month, many drivers say they like such "rotary intersections" because they are safer and keep cars moving.

But they curse drivers who can't navigate them.

"They seem safer to me than four-way stop intersections," said Amy Becke of Bellingham. "There is a learning curve for some. But heck, if New Jersey can do it so can we."

Safety was one of the main reasons that the state Department of Transportation began building roundabouts in Whatcom County nearly a decade ago, part of a state project to widen and modernize Guide Meridian north of Bellingham.

Almost 20 years of crash records at four intersections on the Guide, which is state Highway 539, show an increase in overall crashes after the roundabouts were built — but there's been a sharp decline in injuries from those wrecks.

"It's definitely going to be because of the lower speed," said Trooper Heather Axtman of the Washington State Patrol.

Both Axtman and Andrea Petrich, WSDOT spokesperson in Whatcom and Skagit counties, credit roundabouts with limiting the severity of wrecks.

"(A roundabout) reduces the number of points of conflict," Petrich said. "It takes many of the head-on and T-bone collisions that occur at intersections and changes them to more of a side-swipe."

Whatcom County's first roundabout was at the Guide and Ten Mile Road, followed by others at River, Wiser Lake and Pole Roads.

About 20,000 cars on average traveled the Guide daily through the area north of Laurel in 2016, according to WSDOT figures.

That's 2,000 more cars daily than in 2009-2010 as the roundabouts were built and 4,000 more cars daily than in the year 2000.

In the decade before the roundabouts were built — Jan. 1, 2000, through March 31, 2010 — WSDOT shows 112 crashes with 96 injuries on the Guide at those four intersections.

From March 31, 2010, to June 21, 2018, WSDOT records show more collisions at 143 but with significantly fewer injuries, at 23.

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Drivers navigate a roundabout at Guide Meridian and Wiser Lake Road in 2010. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Axtman said that statistics showing total crashes and their severity also include single-car wrecks that don't take into account driver error.

"It could be someone who failed to yield; it could be someone who went over a curb and disabled their vehicle," Axtman said.

Axtman said she often hears complaints from drivers during roundabout construction, but not so much afterward.

"There is a lot of pushback when a roundabout is going in," she said. "Nobody wants to sit in traffic for a construction zone. Then they know the road dynamic is going to change. But then you're not having those long wait times at the light anymore, which is the whole point."

Pamela Johnson of Bellingham said she hates drivers who don't give the right of way to traffic already in the roundabout, as required by law.

"People do not yield as they are supposed to and just keep going," Johnson said. "The single-lane roundabouts are a bit better than the double one that is near Whatcom Community College."

The T-intersection of state highways 9 and 542 east of Deming and north of Acme now has a roundabout to make it safer and easier for drivers. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald State Department of Transportation

Whatcom County's newest roundabout replaced a stop sign at a T-intersection on Valley Highway at Mount Baker Highway between Deming and Welcome.

Its $1.4 million price tag was coupled with a roundabout planned soon west of Custer, Petrich said.

WSDOT's aim was to increase safety and reduce wait times at the intersection of highways 9 and 542, especially for the 4,300 drivers headed out of the South Fork Valley on the average day.

"It was well-needed. I am very happy for roundabouts," said John Julius of Van Zandt. "I travel Mount Baker Highway to get to Bellingham."

According to WSDOT records, 37 crashes — including one serious injury wreck — were reported in the decade before the roundabout was built.

Some 11,000 cars pass the intersection daily on Mount Baker Highway, according to WSDOT records.

Another fan is Jeff Margolis, owner of the Everybody's Store in Van Zandt, just south of the roundabout.

"It was time for it," Margolis said. "It was constructed for large trucks going south on (Highway) 9, which was a longtime concern for people in the valley. Generally speaking, it allows you to get from 9 to the Mount Baker Highway in a smoother fashion."

That new roundabout is among 20 or so throughout Whatcom County, many of them on state highways.

Ferndale is installing one this summer at Interstate 5 and Portal Way, and Bellingham has several on city streets.

Washington State Department of Transportation shows you how to drive in a roundabout.

Recent Washington transplant Karen Young Coleman said it was difficult for her to adapt to roundabouts.

"When someone goes to get their driver's license, they should have to take a roundabout video tutorial as you are driving through a roundabout. Learning on my own was pure heck," she said.

One possible reason for the strong feelings regarding roundabouts is that many drivers misunderstand the concept, according to WSDOT and the Washington State Patrol.

Some Bellingham Herald readers who responded to a social media inquiry said they believe that a roundabout is the same as a four-way stop and that drivers must signal as they enter or exit.

Both assumptions are wrong, said WSP's Axtman.

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An aerial view shows the roundabout on South State Street connecting State, Wharf, Boulevard and Forest streets. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

"The person entering the roundabout must yield. It's not a stop," Axtman said. "There's no law about signaling in a roundabout."

Washington law requires drivers to signal not less than 100 feet before turning — a measure that's impractical within the confines of a roundabout, Axtman said.

"Logistically, it doesn't make any sense," she said.

According to information at the WSDOT website, roundabouts are preferable over intersections controlled by traffic lights because they are cheaper to build, reduce crashes, and allow better traffic flow.

"Traffic is not required to stop — only yield — so the intersection can handle more traffic in the same amount of time," WSDOT said.

They're popular elsewhere around the world and especially in Europe.

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Construction crews work on one of two roundabouts on D Street at Interstate 5 in Blaine in the spring of 2010. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

In terms of construction cost, roundabouts and traffic signals are comparable – but maintenance is cheaper for roundabouts, WSDOT said.

Hardware, upkeep and electricity for traffic signals can run between $5,000 and $10,000 per year.

Morgan Gaunt, who lives north of Bellingham, agrees that roundabouts help with traffic flow.

"We live off of Slater. If there weren’t roundabouts at that exit we would be sitting in traffic all day long," she said.

But Michelle Russell Cherry of Bellingham said she hates roundabouts.

"(My) poor husband has to hear me curse through every one," she said.

All roundabouts drive strong reactions from local residents before they are built, Axtman said.

She said she's getting an earful from drivers opposed to the one that opened last weekend at Sharpes Corner on Highway 20 east of Anacortes.

But WSDOT said opinion changes once drivers get a chance to use them.

A study done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that 31 percent of drivers favored roundabouts and 41 percent opposed them, but the figures shifted to 63 percent in favor with 15 percent opposed once they were built.

Angela Asbury-Andreason of Maple Falls said she's among the people who were skeptics at first.

"I hated the idea of them but they seem to be working quite well so far," she said. "I am still on the fence about the newest one by Highway 9. Its placement makes me feel uncomfortable."

Officials in Carmel, Indiana, began to build roundabouts in the late 1990s and saw a sharp decrease in crashes in nearly 30 years, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute.

Carmel is "totally obsessed with them," according to a July 20, 2017, article in Inverse magazine.

The Midwest city about the size of Bellingham now has 100 roundabouts and crashes have been drastically reduced, the city said at its website.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty