Road Worrier

Failure to yield causes many crashes at twin-ring roundabout

Staff WriterApril 19, 2011 

— Lisa B. Lowrance avoids the Bell Tower roundabout on Hillsborough Street when she can. She gripes about it when she can't.

The crash that totaled her minivan came on one of her gripe nights.

Lowrance is not surprised to hear that Raleigh police have logged more than 40 crashes at the quirky, twin-ring roundabout since it opened to traffic eight months ago.

She and her two children were heading for "Christmas Carol" rehearsals at Theatre in the Park on Pullen Road on Nov. 18. They had made the drive from their North Raleigh home most nights since September.

The approaches to the Bell Tower roundabout are marked with squiggly hieroglyphs that tell drivers which lane to use. And with signs reminding them to yield before they enter the circular intersection.

Lowrance and other southbound drivers on Pullen are supposed to use the left, inner lane to turn left on Hillsborough - or the right, outer lane to turn right. They can use either lane to continue straight on Pullen.

She was driving in the inner lane - "in the middle of saying, 'I really hate this roundabout'" - when her Honda minivan was struck by a Toyota entering from her right.

"If he saw me in the inside lane, he probably thought I was going on around the circle," said Lowrance, 35, a preschool science teacher. "But I was heading straight across, which I think is totally confusing for somebody going straight through on Hillsborough."

The Toyota driver was charged with failure to yield by a police officer who had ticketed another driver for the same offense just one day earlier - after a similar crash at the same spot.

In fact, of 42 Bell Tower roundabout crash reports published on a Raleigh police website, there are 21 cases citing eastbound Hillsborough drivers who should have yielded to cars already in the roundabout.

There are similar crashes involving drivers headed west on Hillsborough. The rest involve drivers switching lanes within the roundabout.

Only one significant injury has been reported, involving a man knocked off his motorcycle Oct. 6.

Lowrance and her children were unhurt Nov. 18. The minivan delivered them to rehearsal a block away, a bit late, but it had to be towed to the junkyard from there.

Some trouble expected

City engineers expected that drivers would find the Bell Tower roundabout tricky. They published an illustrated navigation guide before it opened last summer as part of a $9.9 million Hillsborough Street facelift.

The Hillsborough changes cured the problem of afternoon rush-hour jams caused when traffic backed up in both directions for drivers turning left onto Oberlin Road and Pullen.

But city officials are surprised to see all the crashes there. The accident counts were heaviest in the first three months after the roundabout opened last summer. But March was busy, too, with six crashes.

"They are usually low-speed crashes, but it's still way more crashes than we would like to see," said Jed Niffenegger, senior transportation engineer in the city's Public Works Department. "Unfortunately, it seems to be continuing."

A safety analyst is keeping tabs, but Niffenegger will wait to conduct a formal study until the Bell Tower roundabout has been in use for a full year. If the crashes continue, he said, city and state engineers will look for solutions.

To get it right

"If you drive through the intersection and you pay attention to the signage and the markings, you should have no trouble. It's people going through there trying to wing it, I guess," that have accidents, Niffenegger said.

Raleigh's other traffic roundabouts are simpler, with one traffic lane instead of two. And safer.

Studies have shown that crash counts fell after standard intersections were replaced with single-ring roundabouts including one on Pullen Road at Stinson Drive.

Lowrance has figured out how to drive the Bell Tower roundabout, but she still avoids it when she can.

"You shouldn't have to be a regular to understand how it works," Lowrance said.

"Anybody should be able to figure out a traffic circle. It should be simple enough for a driver doing it the first time, or the hundredth time."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include your address and daytime phone.

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