Road Worrier

DOT is rethinking traffic design at Hillsborough St. roundabout

The DOT is rethinking the traffic design at N.C. State because of crash frequency.

Staff WriterMarch 6, 2012 

— Finally, after more than 100 crashes in 20 months, traffic engineers are rethinking the peculiar design of that twin-ring roundabout on Hillsborough Street.

They know better than to blame all the drivers who keep banging into each other's cars there, in front of the N.C. State University Bell Tower.

They recognize now that a single ring might be simpler, smarter and safer.

"We're going to do some (computer) modeling to see if that single-lane scenario would work, or if some other scenario would work better," said Kelly Becker, a state Department of Transportation traffic engineer. "We don't want to make a change and cause other problems."

The city did just that - it created new problems while fixing old ones - when it opened the roundabout in 2010, as part of a $9.9 million makeover for eight blocks of Hillsborough.

Where Pullen Road had ended at a traffic light, it was extended across Hillsborough at a roundabout that was compact but complicated - with different rules for different movements. Part of Hillsborough was reduced to one lane each way, but engineers figured the roundabout needed two lanes to keep traffic from backing up.

And they realized that drivers would be confused by the eccentric new design. So, in a futile effort to avert chaos, they published a little instruction manual for the Bell Tower roundabout.

If you have not studied your manual this week, here are some highlights:

Eastbound drivers on Hillsborough may use both lanes as they approach the roundabout, if they want to continue east.

Ditto for through traffic on southbound Pullen.

But for drivers continuing north on Pullen, all through traffic takes the inside lane.

And westbound drivers stay in the outside lane if they want to continue on Hillsborough. The inside lane is only for left turns onto Pullen.

Is that clear? Of course not.

That's why Kathleen Meaney hears the clatter of conflict every day from her nearby office.

"You'll hear honking, and you'll hear squeaking of brakes," Meaney said. "You'll hear crashing. We've also had situations where people stop at the roundabout and just get out and scream at each other."

Meaney is a graphic designer, on sabbatical from an adjunct teaching job at NCSU. She is not an engineer. But she has carefully sketched out a proposed single-ring fix, and she shared her idea with the Road Worrier.

It turns out to be nearly identical to possible changes that DOT and city engineers will study over the next few weeks.

For two spokes approaching this wheel, Meaney would designate the outside lanes as right-turn only. For the other two, the outside lane would be pinched off.

The circle itself would be reduced to a single ring, fed by one lane of traffic from each direction.

"I'm looking for a quick fix," said Meaney, 40. "I figure, do something now - and no more studies. Block off some lanes and be done with it."

City and DOT officials want to see how the single-ring design handles traffic and whether it improves safety.

They say the Bell Tower roundabout has eased the traffic flow through this intersection, and it has eliminated costly, injurious crashes that happened there in the past.

The wrecks are less serious now, but much more plentiful.

According to the Road Worrier's count from a Raleigh police database, there have been 113 crashes in the Bell Tower roundabout since it opened in July 2010. With six crashes in February alone, the pace has kept steady.

These are just fender benders, but the damage estimates are mounting: more than $300,000 in repairs to more than 200 cars so far. Reported injuries have been minor, involving bicyclists and a motorcyclist.

The typical crash involves an eastbound driver on Hillsborough, charged with failure to yield the right of way to vehicles in the roundabout.

In interviews, these drivers frequently say they slowed down, looked left and saw nothing in their way. The outside lane was clear. If there was a car in the inside lane, they figured it was continuing around the circle.

But sometimes, both lanes of the roundabout will exit south onto Pullen Road - crossing in front of that Hillsborough driver.

"You're not used to looking at two lanes to make a right turn," said Jonathan Rivera, 26, of Lumberton, who was cited in a Feb. 10 crash. "Usually when you yield, you yield to one lane."

Alas, if only he had checked the manual.

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