Accidents common at roundabout intersection (2/18/10)

Data show at least 25 collisions since 2004

Feb. 18, 2010

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The intersection where town officials want to install a controversial roundabout has been the focus of an intense debate over the past year, much of it revolving around safety concerns.


    Courtesy photo
This undated photo supplied by the town of Williston shows the intersection of U.S. 2, Oak Hill and North Williston roads as it was roughly 90 years ago.


    File photo
Traffic passes throught the intersection of U.S. 2 and Oak Hill and North Williston roads on a recent morning.

The corner of U.S. 2, Oak Hill and North Williston roads is in fact an accident-prone location, according to information provided by the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Williston Police Department. There were 25 accidents reported at the intersection from the beginning of 2004 through the end of 2009,

Safety is likely to be on the minds of residents March 2 as they consider a ballot item that asks if Williston should replace the intersection’s existing four-way stop signs with a roundabout.

Town Manager Rick McGuire worries voters will reject the roundabout based on gut feelings rather than concrete evidence.

“There are many, many studies that show roundabouts are safer than what’s out there now,” he said. “But people rely on personal experience and form opinions that are not necessarily consistent with studies.”

A controversy erupted last year after the Selectboard approved a roundabout for the intersection in the heart of Williston Village. The decision came after the town learned the intersection had been placed on a list of the 50 most crash-prone locations around Vermont. That made improvements to the intersection, which is often clogged with commute-hour traffic, eligible for 100 percent federal funding.

Opposition soon emerged to the roundabout. Some residents said it was unneeded and unwanted, arguing that it would hurt the village’s historic character and negatively impact Williston Federated Church and the Korner Kwik Stop, both located at the intersection.

Opponents fought to get the roundabout placed on the ballot so voters could have a say, circulating a petition that was eventually signed by more than 700 people. The Selectboard last month decided to include the issue on the ballot, even though the town’s attorney said the vote would be advisory and non-binding.

The Observer requested accident data from the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Williston Police Department to determine the extent of the intersection’s safety problems. The police provided information for 2009, and the AOT data covered the five-year period from 2004 to 2008.

The data could exclude some accidents because minor fender-benders may not be reported, said Agency of Transportation spokesman John Zicconi, who noted that AOT relies on law enforcement agencies to provide information.

The data provided did not show how many people were injured in collisions at the intersection. Bart Chamberlain, Williston’s acting police chief, said there had been no fatalities at the intersection in the 18 years he’s been with the department. Accident summaries provided by AOT did indicate that many accidents involved dangerous broadside collisions.

The last three accidents at the intersection in 2009 all occurred on Dec. 16, during a snowstorm. One involved a school bus.

Danger ahead?

There is nothing about U.S. 2 or the intersecting roads that makes the intersection inherently unsafe, Chamberlain said. U.S. 2 is straight and nearly level at the location, making visibility good for motorists headed east and west.

Oak Hill Road is slightly more problematic because of its downhill slope leading up to the intersection, Chamberlain said, but it still allows motorists to see the stop sign well in advance.

The intersection accounts for just a small fraction of the accidents reported around town each year. The Williston Police Department tallied 216 traffic accidents within town limits during 2009. Only six of them happened at the intersection.

The intersection is not even ranked as the most dangerous in town. That dubious honor goes to Vermont 2A and Marshall Avenue, which the Vermont Agency of Transportation places 10th on its list of the 50 most crash-prone locations. The U.S. 2 intersection is ranked No. 25.

Zicconi noted the agency looks at several factors other than the number of accidents to compile the ranking. The severity of crashes and the ratio of collisions to traffic volume are also considered.

Williston resident Ginger Isham, a roundabout opponent who led the petition drive, said the number of accidents at the intersection did not change her mind.

“A roundabout belongs where there is not such a dense population,” she said.” I think there are other ways to control traffic.”

Isham said she would prefer traffic lights or greater police enforcement to spur motorists to pay attention to the four-way stop signs now at the intersection.

Roundabout experiences

A report by the Federal Highway Administration said that numerous studies have found roundabouts decreased the severity if not the frequency of collisions. The report acknowledged that safety improvements were less pronounced for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do,” wrote in a 2008 article published in the online magazine Slate that roundabouts are safer than traffic signals or four-way stops partly because they make motorists worry.

“Roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections for a simple reason: By dint of geometry and traffic rules, they reduce the number of places where one vehicle can strike another by a factor of four,” he wrote. “The fact that roundabouts may ‘feel’ more dangerous to the average driver is a good thing: It increases vigilance.”

McGuire said roundabouts have gotten a bad name in Williston because of the undersized traffic circle at Maple Tree Place. He said a well-designed roundabout like the one proposed on U.S. 2 would function better.

Residents are often initially opposed to new roundabouts but grow accustomed to them over time, traffic experts say.

That appears to be the case in Barre Town, where a roundabout was installed last year at the intersection of Route 302 and Route 110. Steve Blondin, the town’s superintendent of public works, said some residents initially opposed the roundabout, but they are getting used to it.

“A lot of people at first said the roundabout was stupid, that they didn’t want it there,” he said. “I think people are liking it now.”