IF you're awake, alert and lucky; IF you're not distracted by your cell phone or your taco; IF you read all the signs and get in the proper lane in advance; and IF you slow down and look carefully to your left before you enter that quirky twin-ring roundabout at the N.C.S.U. Bell Tower on Hillsborough Street -- THEN you PROBABLY won't cause Crash Number 85.
Wait, I forgot a few ifs:
IF the drivers already in the roundabout are awake and alert, too; and IF they pick the correct lane and stay there so you can stay out of their way, THEN your chances of avoiding a crash are even better.
But as the Road Worrier reported today, many drivers are unlucky.
Raleigh police have handled 84 crashes since the roundabout opened for business in July 2010, and half of them involved pretty much the same combination of maneuvers: a driver eastbound on Hillsborough Street collides with a southbound driver in the roundabout, frequently somebody heading south onto Pullen Road.
City engineers speculate that less-experienced college-age drivers account for some of the problem. They say much of the confusion involves the failure of eastbound Hillsborough drivers to yield to traffic in both lanes -- not just the outer lane -- of the roundabout.
(1) where else on any street in the state do we expect merging drivers to yield to traffic in more than one lane? And
(2) when I look at crash reports, I see that most of the crashes since class started at N.C.S.U. in August involve cars in that outer lane of the roundabout, not the inner lane. And the drivers involved in these crashes come in all ages, including students.
When I talk to drivers involved in these crashes, I find more than just carelessness involved. Drivers who say they are careful talk about being surprised, about cars that seemed to come from nowhere, and about cars that moved from one lane to another at the last moment. Sure, it was their responsibility to avoid these crashes, but the fact that we have so many crashes suggests it is not entirely their fault.
There are dozens of online comments with today's column, with good discusssion and suggestions. Here's a sample:
The radius is too tight for accomodating 2 lanes of traffic flow. (Are there any other "twin ring" roundabouts this small around here? Anywhere?) - Axilla
A traffic control feature which requires a public service announcement and distracting signage is a poor design, rather like a poem which can only be appreciated using a guide. - annerussell
The problem is that the intersection is, or can be confusing. People enter the circle on the inner ring, and then try to immediately exit on the outer ring. Frankly, I think the design would have worked well, had the circle been built larger to accommodate traffic volumes ingress/egress attempts. all in all, weak engineering. - JustAGuyInNC
At least half of the drivers I observed in the roundabout by the Bell Tower were talking on cell phones. How could I tell? They were all driving one handed and could not stay in the correct lane. I had no trouble avoiding them because I yielded and kept a safe distance. - dubious
Maybe they should have put in only 1 lane and not 2. That would make it less confusing as it sounds like the driver is pulling into an open lane but the inner lane has a car that is trying to move over at the same time. 1 lane solves that. - barelypure
You're not supposed to change lanes until you go around past Pullen. If you want to go straight, do what the sign says and get in the outside lane. Again, not a hard concept if you're paying attention and at least somewhat awake. - JohnDBurns
One reader suggested we get N.C.S.U. engineering students to tackle the problem. What a great idea! It could be, like, a Joe Hummer class project.
If I were an engineer or a professor, and of couse I'm neither, here's how I'd have my engineering students tackle the problem:
1) Study the roundabout, and how drivers use it. Install video cameras there, and you'll catch crashes. Hit rewind. Let's look at the slo-mo replay.
2) Talk with police officers, and with drivers involved in crashes. Hey, do traffic engineers ever talk to drivers?
3) Don't add more signs -- there's too much information there already. One driver called me this morning to recommend signs that tell drivers which lane to take. He was surprised to learn that those signs are there already, on poles and painted on the asphalt.
4) Figure out a way to keep roundabout drivers from changing lanes. This might be the toughest part.
5) Look for a way to help eastbound Hillsborough drivers avoid trouble. Give them an easier, longer, straight-on view of roundabout traffic (instead of an over-the-left-shoulder view).
6) Consider cutting back to one lane for southbound Pullen Road. This might eliminate the crazy situation where eastbound Hillsborough drivers are expected to yield right-of-way to two lanes, even when they think they're only entering the outer lane.
City engineers expected some of this trouble when the designed this asymmetrical two-ring circus - and commissioned an instruction manual for it. They learned of the high crash rate right away, and began working on possible fixes that seem so far to have made no difference.
They haven't found a solution yet, but they're considering options mentioned above. Meanwhile here's a drastic recommendation from John Wardlaw, who called the Road Worrier Monday to report crash #84:
“I know this would defeat the purpose of having continuous, smooth-flowing traffic there, but I think they need stop signs,” Wardlaw said. “Hillsborough needs to come to a dead stop before it enters the roundabout.”
I hope it won't come to that.