When roundabouts started popping up in this country in the early 1990s, raising the ire of drivers unaccustomed to navigating the traffic control features common throughout Europe, traffic engineers shrugged off the early fender benders because fatal crashes had been all but eliminated.
“The saying was you might see more tow trucks but you won’t see more ambulances,” said Andrea Bill, a traffic safety engineer at the Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory at UW-Madison.
The engineers got it partly right: There have been no fatalities at any of Madison’s five roundabouts, but the number of crashes continues to climb.
Nowhere is that more evident than the roundabout where Mineral Point Road and Pleasant View Road meet on the Far West Side.
That location has seen more crashes than any other site in the city in each of the past three years and in four of the past five years, according to data from the city’s traffic engineering department. It opened in July 2011 and still managed to finish with the fifth-most crashes that year with 15.
Last year, there were 47 crashes at the huge, multi-lane roundabout, which was 12 more than in 2015. One of the busiest of the five roundabouts in the city, it has averaged 38.4 crashes per year in the five full years that it has been open.
“That’s definitely a tough one,” Bill said. “How do you get people to slow down in a roundabout that is that large and is sort of a bypass for drivers heading to Epic and other places in the area?”
Speed and a lack of operational awareness by drivers are primary issues, Bill and city traffic engineer Mark Winter said.
“Too many drivers still don’t know what they are doing in a roundabout,” Winter said.
The Mineral Point/Pleasant View roundabout also lacks landscaping intended to limit how much drivers can see as they enter a roundabout, Winter said. Although counter-intuitive, obstacles in a roundabout actually cause drivers to slow down, he said.
“If you can see too far to the left when you enter a roundabout, you’ll never slow down,” Winter said. “We had added landscaping there, but it didn’t take and drivers can see forever there now.”
Plans call for adding more landscaping to the site, he said.
Making matters worse are drivers who linger in the outer lane, which must be used to take the first right or go straight through the intersection. Drivers who wish to turn left or circle all the way around a roundabout should enter and stay in the left lane, crossing the right lane when they exit.
“What happens is that the person on the inside lane moves to the outside to exit and collides with another car on the outside that didn’t exit at the previous exit,” Winter said.
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There is plenty of signage before the entrance to every roundabout, but crashes still occur.
“We’ve given up trying to control the behavior of drivers. It’s impossible,” Winter said.
Landscaping changes also need to be made where Pleasant View Road, Valley View Road and Junction Road converge, he said. Like the Mineral Point/Pleasant View roundabout a few miles away, it, too, has been among the 10 sites with the most crashes in each of the past three years. About 15,500 vehicles pass through both roundabouts each day, according to city traffic data.
Complicating the Pleasant View/Valley View/Junction roundabout are its high number of entrances. “When you have more decision points, you have a tendency for more crashes,” Bill said.
A study of 30 roundabouts in the state completed by Bill in 2013 that looked at crashes three years before and four years after they opened showed that 23 had more crashes after they opened.
Overall, there were 572 crashes four years after the 30 roundabouts opened versus 311 during the three years before the intersections were converted. Of those, 464 crashes resulting in property damage occurred after the roundabouts opened versus 194 before they opened. Both periods saw similar numbers of accidents with injuries.
But there were no fatalities at the time of the study’s release, which was the biggest reason why the roundabouts were built.
“It’s a tradeoff, like most counter-safety measures,” Bill said. “I still think there will be fewer crashes. I think there’s a lot we’re still learning.”
Other crash sites
The rest of the top 10 crash sites around the city were not at intersections, but in high-traffic areas including East Washington Avenue and Stoughton Road. The two corridors have some of the highest traffic volumes in the city.
In those areas, the timing of the traffic signals are “maxed out” so there is no slack left to create more traffic movement, Winter said. That causes traffic to build up at peak times and drivers become more impatient and take more chances.
Also, the city’s hands are tied at doing any work near the busy Stoughton Road/East Washington Avenue intersection until the state of Wisconsin goes ahead with plans to improve the intersection that are similar to the Stoughton Road overpass at Milwaukee Street, Winter said. Those plans have been on hold for years.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. In the original, the last name of traffic safety engineer Andrea Bill was incorrect.]