SOUTH BEND -- From her desk at South Bend Monument Works, office manager Kay Bergland occasionally observes motorists traveling the wrong way through the roundabout at Portage Avenue and Lathrop Street.
"The trouble we have right here is the older folks," she says, noting that older drivers tend to improperly negotiate the intersection when using it to access Highland Cemetery, which sits opposite South Bend Monument Works at the northwest corner of Portage and Lathrop.
"They come out of the cemetery the wrong way," Bergland says, and occasionally enter it the wrong way, as well, she says, by jumping the splitter island on the south side of the roundabout that otherwise forces traffic to enter the intersection in a counter-clockwise direction.
Perhaps in part because of confusion among older drivers, traffic accidents at Portage and Lathrop have increased significantly since the city installed a roundabout there as part of an improvement project on Portage between Lathrop and Cleveland Road in November 2007.
According to data compiled by the state as part of its Automated Reporting Information Exchange System, 32 accidents have been reported at Portage and Lathrop over the past three years with the roundabout, compared to just 16 the previous three years, when a single stop sign controlled traffic at the three-way intersection.
But accidents are also up at two other intersections in the county with roundabouts -- Douglas Road and Twyckenham Drive near the University of Notre Dame and Bittersweet and Cleveland roads in Harris Township -- suggesting drivers simply need more practice negotiating the circular intersections, which only began appearing in the area in large numbers at the end of 2006.
At Twyckenham and Douglas, a total of 43 accidents have been reported since the county installed a roundabout there in September 2006, compared to just seven between 2002 and 2006. And at Bittersweet and Cleveland, 30 accidents have been reported since October 2009, compared to just 32 between 2005 and 2009, when construction on the roundabout there first began.
"I think there is the appearance that we have some educational needs about how you negotiate a roundabout," says Jessica Clark, the engineer for St. Joseph County, which has constructed five roundabouts since 2007 and has plans for two more -- at Ironwood Drive and Auten Road in Clay Township and Gumwood and Brick roads north of Mishawaka.
That said, Clark cautions that more data is needed to determine whether the numbers represent a trend or just a blip in the statistical record, which could be the case given the multitude of factors that contribute to traffic accidents besides roadway design, including weather and driver distraction.
Popular overseas but relatively new to the United States, the modern roundabout -- not to be confused with its larger cousins the rotary and traffic circle -- made its debut in St. Joseph County at the intersection of Fellows Street and Dean Johnson Boulevard in July 1997.
Since that time, county and city engineers have recommended roundabouts to control traffic at seven other intersections in the county, including on Portage in South Bend, on Front Street in downtown Mishawaka, and on Bittersweet, Douglas and Lincoln Way West in unincorporated St. Joseph County.
The popularity of the roundabout as an alternative to the stop sign or traffic signal can be attributed to safety. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, roundabouts reduce injury accidents by 80 percent -- and all accidents by 40 percent -- by incorporating design elements that slow traffic and reduce the potential for head-on and side-impact collisions.
In the town of Carmel in central Indiana, Mayor Jim Brainard began a campaign to replace traffic lights and stop signs with roundabouts in 1997. The town now has 66 roundabouts, and injury accidents have decreased 66 percent over the past five years, despite a rapidly expanding population and the construction of hundreds of miles of new streets and roads.
"Because everybody slows down in a roundabout there is greater reaction time," says Brainard, who first recommended roundabouts to the city engineer in Carmel based on his experience with them as a driver in England. "So when there are accidents, they are less severe and there is less injury."
But Brainard acknowledges the need to engage in public education in order to ensure motorists understand the rules regarding roundabouts, which tend to cause confusion among drivers who are accustomed to stop signs and traffic signals at intersections.
"Public education is key ... you really have to work at public education," he says. "We've been doing it for 10 years, and we're still doing it."
<b>A learning curve</b>
According to Clark, the county engineer, the increase in accidents at Bittersweet and Cleveland can be attributed to a number of factors, including speed and a tendency among some drivers to ignore the signs and markings that otherwise guide vehicles safely through the roundabout.
"I really think that at Bittersweet and Cleveland people aren't slowing down enough to make good decisions," she says, adding that the fact that the roundabout contains two lanes "adds to the confusion, just because you need to pick a lane and stay in it."
Clark says she does not have a guess as to why accidents are up at Douglas and Twyckenham, though the number of vehicles traveling through the intersection could be a factor. The roundabout there was installed as part of a project to expand Twyckenham north of Eddy Street to accommodate an increase in traffic resulting from the closure of Juniper Road through campus.
In regard to Portage and Lathrop, Carl Littrell, the engineer for South Bend, says he studied crash data for the intersection about 18 months ago and found that most of the accidents there after the roundabout was installed involved impaired drivers.
"At least half of the accidents involved impaired drivers, and a good portion were rear-end collisions with other cars that were slowed or stopped for the roundabout," he says, which he says proves his theory that yield signs, which along with lane markings are critical to the safe operation of a roundabout, "have become invisible (to drivers) over the years."
But Clark points out that even though traffic accidents have increased at some intersections in the county with roundabouts, injury accidents have decreased in most cases, which "is a good thing," she says, "because one of the benefits of roundabouts is that the injuries tend to be fewer."
For example, despite an uptick in accidents overall, the number of injury accidents at Bittersweet and Cleveland has decreased from an average of about 3.5 each of the four years prior to the roundabout -- including a fatal accident in September 2005 -- to just one in the 14 months since its construction.
Both Clark and Littrell say accidents of all types should decrease over time as drivers become more accustomed to roundabouts, and that has indeed been the case for Bergland, the office manager at South Bend Monument Works, whose daily commute from North Liberty includes the two roundabouts on Lincoln Way West near South Bend Regional Airport.
"I didn't like them at first, but I like them now," Bergland says of the intersections, adding, "If you know how to use them, they're great."
Staff writer Erin Blasko: