Roundabouts across the state are significantly improving traffic safety, according to an analysis of 18 years of crash data by Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
The study of 11 roundabouts showed serious injuries dropping seven to zero and minor injuries dropping from 19 to one at the intersections that were previously stop or signal controlled. The total number of crashes dropped nearly 50 percent, from 101 to 54.
Crawford County’s first two roundabouts, located in Saegertown, were too recently constructed to be included in the study, but early anecdotal evidence has been positive, according to borough Manager Chuck Lawrence.
When drivers are comfortable with roundabouts, he said, “They’re slick as heck.”
Data on the state’s older roundabouts seems to back up Lawrence’s appraisal.
Fatalities like injuries and crashes, declined after intersections were converted to roundabouts as well. Prior to being conversion, a total of two fatalities had occurred at the locations considered in the study. No fatalities occurred at those locations after the conversions, according to PennDOT.
"Our data shows that modern-day roundabouts reduce crash severity and injuries while improving traffic flow," said PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards. "This underscores why roundabouts are becoming more commonplace in Pennsylvania and beyond."
The two Saegertown roundabouts were completed in 2017. To be included in PennDOT’s analysis, crash data for at least three years before and after conversion had to be available. Data used in the analysis was based on police-submitted crash reports.
In addition to the 11 roundabouts meeting the review criteria, which were installed between 2005 and 2014, 32 other roundabouts have been installed on state routes and 26 are in design.
Early returns on Saegertown’s roundabouts have been almost universally positive since they opened in August 2017, according to Lawrence. They are functioning safely, greatly improving traffic flow and even succeeding in the court of popular opinion, he said. Though a significant number of residents who had opposed them, Lawrence said even most of the opponents have been converted.
Asked if the borough is pleased with the effect of the roundabouts, Lawrence’s response left no room for doubt.
“Definitely,” he said. “It’s improved the traffic flow dramatically and really we’ve seen very few accidents.”
Lawrence said he was aware of three crashes at the southern roundabout where Route 198 intersects with routes 6 and 19. He was not aware of any crashes at the borough’s northern end, where the same three routes intersect just east of Brookhouser Bridge.
Two of the three crashes at the southern roundabout involved DUIs, Lawrence said, and “had nothing to do with the roundabout.”
Residents tend to raise a stink about roundabouts, Lawrence said, because people simply don’t like change.
The changes coming next year in Vernon Township, where the Big I intersection of routes 322, 98 and 19 is due to be converted to a two-lane roundabout, have engendered skepticism in many residents.
The roundabouts included in PennDOT’s safety study were all single-lane circular intersections, according to spokeswoman Jill Harry. A two-lane roundabout and a three-lane roundabout have been in use in the Scranton area since 2016, Harry said, but neither was old enough to be included in the study.
The study reinforced what Vernon officials have been hearing from throughout the planning process from PennDOT, Horvat said.
“I do expect it to improve safety as far as serious crashes are concerned,” Horvat said of the Big I roundabout, “though there might be an uptick in minor crashes at first as drivers get used to it.
“I don’t think it’s going to change public opinion,” he added. “People have voiced it (their opinion) quite loudly over the past few months. I don’t think a study is going to change those people’s opinions.”
Part of the problem is due to the fact that unlike the ones in Saegertown the roundabout at the Big I will be a two-lane roundabout.
Crawford County drivers are more likely to have seen a multi-lane roundabout in the movies than to have navigated one themselves, according to Horvat.
“People think it’s going to be ‘European Vacation’ — ‘Hey, there’s Big Ben’ … ‘Hey there’s Sheetz, hey there’s BoRocks,” Horvat said. “It’ll be interesting to see how this project pans out.”
In Saegertown, Lawrence similarly unsure what to expect from a two-lane roundabout, but he offered simple advice to people who are uncertain about using them.
“Yield to the person in the circle, keep going until you get out and use your turn signal,” he said.
The worst thing about the roundabouts, he added, was the isolation that resulted from detours during extended construction periods.
Now that the roads are reopened and drivers have acclimated to the roundabouts, traffic has much improved.
“One problem we’ve found is that people have shied away from them,” he said, preferring to avoid the roundabouts altogether rather than learn to deal with them.
Learning how to handle a roundabout doesn’t take long, according to Lawrence. Occasionally, drivers will stop once they’re in the roundabout, he said, but after once or twice through they get the hang of it.
“In my opinion, if you can’t navigate them,” Lawrence said, “you shouldn’t have a license.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.