×

Roundabouts are increasingly common in N.H., but you have to use them right

  • The creation of yet another roundabout in Concord – the city’s fourth with two more being considered, has once again raised the question of whether we have learned to maneuver our cars through these circuitous intersections. “I think people are still confused about what they’re supposed to do,” said Doreen McDonald, who lives on Oak Hill in East Concord and wonders how well people understand the new roundabout near Exit 16. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • The creation of yet another roundabout in Concord has led to confusion over the circuitous intersections, according to a resident near the new roundabout near Exit 16. “People come to the foot of Shawmut and they stop – they just stop. Hello! There’s not a stop sign anymore there, people!” said Doreen McDonald, who lives on Oak Hill. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Vehicles move through the roundabout at Mountain Road near Exit 16 in Concord. Not everyone is up to speed on who has the right of way in a roundabout, but the yield sign should be a clue. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The creation of yet another roundabout in Concord – the city’s fourth, with two more being considered – has once again raised the question of whether we have learned to maneuver our cars through these circuitous intersections.

Here’s one opinion, which sounds a lot like the note a teacher would write on your homework: We’re getting better, but more work is needed.

“I think people are still confused about what they’re supposed to do,” said Doreen McDonald, who lives on Oak Hill in East Concord.

Although Concord saw its first modern roundabouts close to a decade ago, she said, “A lot of people, I don’t really think they handle them any better.”

McDonald regularly drives down the steep hill of Shawmut Street to the intersection with Mountain Road and East Side Drive, just off Exit 16 of Interstate 93, an intersection that became a traffic circle in November after a year of construction. She’s a fan of the design, which allows drivers to make a much smoother transition from any road to any other one.

“I think this one here is probably the nicest one of all. They were tying in five different roads; I really marvel at the design and the work that they did,” she said.

The biggest problem McDonald sees is that some drivers forget that the entry to a traffic circle is a yield, rather than the stop required at the previous four-way intersection.

“People come to the foot of Shawmut (Street) and they stop – they just stop. Hello! There’s not a stop sign anymore there, people!” she said.

Roundabouts may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, but variations date back to 1903, when Columbus Circle opened in New York City. A number of traffic circles, using a different design than is common now, were built in New Hampshire from the 1940s to 1960s.

“They fell out of favor ... because they relied on high speed merging of traffic ... causing traffic jams within the circle,” is how the state Department of Transportation describes their history. “While traffic circles fell out of use in the U.S., many European countries modified the design and eventually created the modern roundabout. The modern roundabouts have since gained renewed interest in the U.S. because of the safety benefits, high capacity, traffic calming effect, and aesthetic value.”

Roundabouts are not the large, high-speed traffic circles of past decades where traffic within the circle did not always have the right of way. These tend to be smaller, which makes drivers go much more slowly, often with flat islands in the middle to keep long tractor-trailers from getting stuck, and they always require entering traffic to yield.

Compared with traditional intersections with stop signs or traffic lights, they are safer and allow more traffic to pass through. However, they are much more expensive to install.

Jim Amico, who owns Commercial Driving School and has been teaching driving for 31 years, sees another problem with people adapting to roundabouts: Drivers are too aggressive.

“The people in the circle do have the right of way, but sometimes people race to get in front of them. No one travels with a three-second traveling distance, so the circle gets backed up when that happens,” he said.

Amico said it would help if more people would signal their turn when leaving the roundabout, the way they’d signal a turn at an intersection, giving a heads-up to drivers behind them and drivers entering the circle.

“People aren’t signaling on the exit – that would make it much easier if they’d do that,” he said.

He said he thinks people are getting used to roundabouts as they become more common – New Hampshire has 40 of them, according to the Department of Transportation – but that they still can be intimidating.

“I get students once in a while who say, ‘Oh I hate these things,’ ” he said. “But I think most people are used to them.”

The poster child for alarming roundabouts in New Hampshire is probably the Lee Traffic Circle, at the intersection of routes 4 and 125. It has been there for decades and is much bigger than the more recent roundabouts: You could pick up one of the fast-food eateries that adjoin the intersection and fit it inside the circle while still leaving room for a couple of taco trucks.

The real issue, however, is that the Lee Traffic Circle has two lanes of traffic traveling around the circle, rather than one lane, which is much more common.

It switched to two lanes in late 2015 to allow more cars to pass through and cut down on traffic in all directions. The result was confusion and fender-benders galore.

“There were nights there’d be four or five of us up there, each covering a different accident,” said Lee police Chief Thomas Dronsfield Jr. “We really didn’t have any issues until they went to the two-lane.”

A key point is that, he said, “the accidents were all minor.”

This is one of the big selling points of traffic circles: They almost always produced a sharp decrease in serious or fatal crashes.

At a standard intersection, bad driving can easily produce a T-Bone crash, where the front of one vehicle runs into the side of another vehicle, which is the most dangerous type of collision. In a traffic circle, bad driving rarely produces anything worse than a sideswipe that damages bodywork but nothing more.

People have gotten used to the design, according to Dronsfield.

“As time went on, the accidents started to trail off,” he said.

“A lot of it is just driver error – people not following the markings on the road, or the signage.”

The state, as well as the town of Lee, have put videos online showing how to drive through roundabouts of all sizes. That helps, Dronsfield said, but it’s not perfect.

“You still get people who come from out of state; you can’t educate them. I think the overhead signage and road markings, you can’t be much more explanatory than that, but people still cut across lanes at the last minute,” he said. “If you take your time, pay attention, it’s fine. But everybody’s in a rush; they can’t wait that extra few seconds.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)