The numbers are in, and they don’t look good … at least at first blush. Last week, the Region of Waterloo released a new report citing a 54 per cent rise in roundabout collisions last year, jumping to 131 in 2010 from 85 in 2009. According to the report the majority of the crashes were of the fender-bender variety and no serious injuries, with 11 of the region’s 15 roundabouts accounting for those 131 collisions. Regional staff has attributed this rise in crashes to an increase in traffic volume and inattentive drivers.
The sharp rise in collisions last year seems to suggest that drivers just aren’t getting the message when it comes to navigating a roundabout safely, despite ongoing efforts to educate drivers.
On the surface it might even be easy to suggest that traffic planners should do away with them and revert back to the traditional stop sign or signal light. These statistics don’t tell the whole story, though.
Since 2004, when the first roundabout was built in the region, their numbers have risen to 15 just seven years later. Planners expect roundabouts will continue to be an important part of roadway landscape in the area, despite the rise in collisions.
To understand the region’s ongoing support of traffic roundabouts in the face of the growing number of collisions, it’s important to go beyond the crash statistics and look at how the region decides on where to install roundabouts, and why.
Waterloo Region isn’t alone in its increased adoption of roundabouts; in 1999 there were some 100 roundabouts in North America, and now that number is estimated to be about 1,200.
Roundabouts have been shown to improve traffic flows, there is less stopping and starting and idling which helps improve air quality, and roundabouts are able to push more traffic through an intersection when compared to other traffic signals, according to regional staff.
“We just don’t throw darts at a map and say ‘here is where they will go’ – every location is evaluated,” said Bob Henderson, the region’s manager of transportation engineering, adding that under regional bylaws, whenever staff look at intersection improvements, roundabouts must be considered.
Factors used in determining intersection controls include space constraints, current and future traffic volumes, collision history, pedestrian activity and cost. Every intersection in the region is evaluated based on a 20-year lifecycle plan to determine which type of traffic control measure is used, Henderson explained.
“More or less, the moral of the story is we choose the most appropriate traffic control for every intersection.”
When making that decision, the region must crunch the numbers carefully. The infrastructure alone for traffic lights – poles, signal heads, underground wiring – typically costs $100,000, but that doesn’t include any changes necessary to the intersection, such as building left or right turning lanes, which can push the costs up into the $500,000 range.
Meanwhile, a typical two-lane roundabout can cost about $1,000,000, Henderson noted. However, roundabouts tend to have fewer accidents than intersections controlled by traffic lights, and those collisions also tend to be much less serious.
Henderson said that roundabouts can reduce the number of injuries in collisions by up to 75 per cent, and over 20 years, that is a lot of money saved. The reduction in accidents is attributed to slower speeds and a reduced number of conflict points – points at which vehicles or pedestrians may collide.
“Transport Canada says that an injury collision costs you, me and society $82,000. So if you have, on average, two injury collisions per year that’s $160,000 in societal costs,” he said.
“Add that up over 20 years and you’ll find that if you can reduce injury collisions by 75 per cent, that is a significant cost saving.”
The region doesn’t use Transport Canada’s $82,000 measurement, but a figure closer to about $30,000 to determine the costs associated with injuries in a collision, which means that there are actually fewer roundabouts in the region than there would be if they used the Transport Canada numbers.
“We’re being conservative using that figure when we evaluate the merits of a roundabout at any given location.”
In Woolwich Township, there is only one roundabout in operation – at the intersection of Sawmill Road and Arthur Street – and none in Wellesley, but there are discussions of possibly installing one at the troublesome Crowsfoot Corner, just west of Conestogo.
Another roundabout was considered at the intersection of Northfield and Sawmill Road, but never came to fruition after the existing light was deemed appropriate for the area.
With roundabouts becoming much more common, the region has taken driver education seriously and implemented programs to try and reduce the number of collisions at these intersections.
Since 2004, the regional budget has allocated $50,000 to educational materials and programs, including television and radio ads, but for 2011 Henderson said he tripled that figure to $150,000, including a series of television spots featuring the Kitchener Rangers called “Practice Makes Perfect.”
“I challenge anyone to find a more comprehensive education plan that what we have,” he said. “I would say that we have the most comprehensive plan in North America.”
For now, he urges drivers to take their time when approaching roundabouts and be patient with other drivers until everyone becomes more comfortable with navigating roundabouts safely.
For more information on roundabouts in the region, visit their website at www.regionofwaterloo.ca and click on the Getting Around tab.