How rural traffic roundabouts can save lives

The new roundabout at the intersections of Pine Log and Carthage roads in Robeson County.
The new roundabout at the intersections of Pine Log and Carthage roads in Robeson County.

Pine Log and Carthage roads meet at a high-speed crossroads in rural Robeson County. For years, the intersection of the roads, each with a 55 mph speed limit, was governed by stop signs on Carthage.

Christian Lowery, 21, died of injuries incurred there.

Lowery, who was pregnant, was a passenger in the car driven by her then 24-year-old sister April. The sisters were on their way to classes at their community college. As they crossed the intersection, they were struck by a Ford pickup truck that ran a stop sign. The driver was charged with a misdemeanor for causing death with a motor vehicle; the case was later dismissed.

After that fatal accident in February 2011, the N.C. Department of Transportation investigated the intersection, cleared away some vegetation and installed signs on Carthage telling drivers about the stop ahead.

But even that didn’t stop the serious collisions. There wasn’t another fatality but there were two “A” accidents — a classification DOT uses to describe accidents in which people are severely injured, including massive losses of blood, broken bones and unconsciousness.

In June, the department replaced the stop signs with a roundabout, which forces drivers to slow down. Roundabouts can be more effective than traffic lights. While traffic lights reduce the number of accidents, the accidents that happen are likely to be serious. Roundabouts don’t decrease the number of accidents, but injuries are minor and fatalities are much less likely to occur.

With a roundabout, “We eliminate the problems with determining whether there’s enough time to get through the intersection,” said James Dunlop, state congestion management engineer. Drivers “just have to look to their left and see if there’s anyone in the roundabout. It makes these locations a lot safer.”

The department is building more roundabouts in rural areas, including one in Wake County at the intersection of N.C. 98 and N.C. 96, a few miles east of Wake Forest where the two highways meet at the Franklin County line.

While the Pine Log and Carthage roads roundabout cost about $1.2 million, state engineers estimated that it would save $2.5 million every year in reduced accident and injury costs. Furthermore, engineering analysis of the crash history estimated that the roundabout would reduce injuries by 89 percent.

The N.C. Department of Transportation is part of the N.C. Vision Zero initiative, a cooperative program between law enforcement, emergency responders, engineers, and educators. The name reflects the initiative’s goal: Zero fatalities and safer roads for drivers, pedestrians, bikers, and other roadway users.

Vision Zero initiatives started in Sweden in the 1990s. Now, national, regional, and local versions, including one in Robeson County, are appearing in the United States.

Nearby Lumberton, about 95 miles south of Raleigh, is the county seat for Robeson County. From 2013 to 2017, Robeson County had the highest number of fatalities for every 1,000 registered vehicles, more than any other county in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Vision Zero website.

The state plans to build several other roundabouts in Robeson County as well. Construction is underway on two near the UNC-Pembroke entrance. The department also plans to build one at the NC 710 and Deep Branch Road intersection near Pembroke, a rural, high-speed intersection with a traffic signal.

April Lowry, now 31, has constant headaches, memory problems, carpal tunnel in her right wrist, and can’t work because of medical injuries from the crash. (The sisters’ last names were spelled differently because April married a man with the last name of Lowry.)

Lowry likes the new roundabout and thinks it would have prevented her sister’s death. “It’s a big change,” said Lowry. “I feel like people seeing the big circle now, they have to stop. That’s going to be a whole lot better than before.”

North Carolina’s two-lane rural highways can be dangerous — and their intersections even more so. Even traffic lights haven’t stopped fatal accidents or debilitating injuries. For a relatively small expense, roundabouts make rural intersections safer.

Reach Caroline Wolfe at cwolfe@newsobserver.com.