Accidents are up on a stretch of Route 67 where five roundabouts were built two years ago, but injuries are not, according to state Department of Transportation statistics.
The two-lane-wide roundabout at routes 9 and 67 was the location of 63 accidents between its opening in September 2006 and December 2007, though there were only four personal injuries.
“We’re experiencing more accidents at some intersections, but fewer injuries,” said DOT Region One Director Brian O. Rowback. “What you get are fender-benders, accidents at a lot less speed.”
The accident history provides some real-world nuance to the rosy scenarios state officials painted of roundabouts a few years ago, when they were a new concept and much of the public was apprehensive.
The roundabouts have largely worked as advertised, slowing traffic and preventing serious injuries, except that the rate of minor accidents has turned out to be higher than anticipated.
“There’s always a period of adjustment as people come to understand how roundabouts work,” Rowback said.
The series of roundabouts around Northway Exit 12 is the biggest grouping of roundabouts in the region. The number of accidents appears related to their two-lane design, since accident rates are far lower at single-lane roundabouts in the region.
“There are people doing things inside the roundabouts that are problematic,” Rowback said.
When being planned, roundabouts were portrayed as an effective way to stop frustrating traffic back-ups, while reducing the risk of serious injuries or death from serious accidents.
Traffic light-controlled intersections, the argument went, have more serious accidents because often one or both vehicles may be traveling at high speed, with at least one driver having ignored, missed or tried to beat a red light.
The collisions at the roundabouts tend to be fender-benders or sideswipes.
State figures for the roundabouts, through December 2007, the most recent numbers available, show the following:
u Route 67 at the State Farm entrance, 11 accidents from November 2005 onward. No injuries reported.
u Route 67 and the southbound Northway ramps, 16 accidents from June 2006 through December. One injury.
u Route 67 at northbound Northway ramps, 18 accidents from June 2006 to December, with five personal injuries.
u Route 67 at Kelch Drive, nine accidents from May 2006 to last December, with one injury.
u Route 67 at Route 9, 63 accidents from September 2006 to December 2007, with four injuries.
No fatalities were reported.
Many of the accidents are occurring inside a roundabout, when people cross between lanes, Rowback said. Different signs and other driver education measures are under consideration.
“We don’t just build roundabouts and leave. We monitor what’s going on,” said Peter van Keuren, a spokesman for DOT.
Roundabouts work like a traffic circle, but have a much tighter radius, designed to force people to slow down as they approach and enter the intersection.
Advocates cite long experience with them in Europe, and say they reduce injuries, as well as the delays and pollution from vehicle idling that occurs at traffic lights.
The half-mile from State Farm Place to Route 9 took 61⁄2 minutes during the evening rush hour when there were five traffic lights, and can now be negotiated in two minutes.
Many drivers dislike roundabouts, though, and in 2007 plans for two on Broadway were withdrawn from a downtown Saratoga Springs traffic improvement plan. In Schenectady, where one roundabout is currently proposed as part of a redesign of Erie Boulevard, merchants have criticized the idea.
Malta Supervisor Paul J. Sausville, who uses all five local roundabouts on a daily basis, remains a defender, and he predicted over time the number of accidents will drop.
“They do calm traffic,” he said. “There are still a lot of benefits to them.”
He said drivers using them need to slow down more. “People are so pleased they don’t have to stop at a traffic light they just dash right through.”
Roundabouts may work best in rural areas with light traffic volumes, Sausville said. “As you get into high traffic volumes, the roundabouts begin to lose their glow,” he said.
history and plans
Construction of roundabouts has been a growing traffic management trend for the last decade, and they’re being built in urban, suburban and rural locations.
The first local roundabout opened in 2004 in Greenwich, Washington County, and there are now about two dozen in the eight-county area served by DOT Region One. Others are under construction, and still more under consideration.
Malta alone will eventually have a dozen, based on current plans.
New single-lane roundabouts are currently under construction at two locations on Dunning Street in the Luther Forest housing development, and two more will be at either end of the Round Lake bypass.
Statewide, there are now 44 roundabouts, with another 14 under construction, according to DOT.
However, Rowback said, roundabouts are no longer the generally preferred design at state highway intersections, but are an alternative considered along with more traditional traffic control measures like lights.
Roundabouts are more expensive to build than a traffic light intersection, and they take up more space, he noted.
“If the problem is we’re trading off the number of accidents for the severity of accidents, that has to be part of the conversation,” Rowback said. “I don’t think it’s correct to say it’s the preferred engineering control, but it’s one of the options out there.”
The fact that the Route 67 roundabouts were designed with double lanes to accommodate high volumes of traffic appears to be one reason they have more sideswipe and fender-bender accidents.
Two other roundabouts built elsewhere in the region that are only a single lane wide have fewer accidents, state figures show.
The roundabout at Route 29 and Route 40 in Greenwich, which opened in September 2004, had five accidents and one injury as of last December.
In downtown Glens Falls, the roundabout that opened in May 2007 had three accidents with no injuries in its first eight months of operation.
“Glens Falls is an example of a roundabout that works very well. Single-lane roundabouts have fewer conflict points,” Rowback said.
State officials like to have three years of accident history before doing intersection analysis, but they’ve seen enough to know certain patterns are emerging at the Malta roundabouts.
Rowback said the cause of many of the accidents — at the Route 9 roundabout in particular — is people changing lanes while in the roundabout. That can be because they’re in the wrong lane for the turn they want to make, or because people are driving aggressively, he said.
“If you’re going to turn right, you really need to be in the right lane,” Rowback said. “If you’re going straight through or turning left, you need to be in the left lane. Just having people sort themselves out before they get to the roundabout is very beneficial.”
Georges Jacquemart of BFJ Planning in New York City, a leading roundabout designer, has also said motorist attention is important.
“Traffic lights are very simple, they treat us like babies and we perceive them as safe,” he said at a municipal planning conference in Saratoga Springs last winter. “You have to pay attention at a roundabout.”
Some residents say they love the roundabouts.
“Roundabouts are not perfect, but they are the best option for now. They have saved me nearly five minutes in commuting time from Malta to Burnt Hills each way. Our bus drivers have a much easier time maintaining schedules, regardless of the time of day,” said Keith Stewart, a local resident and vice president of the Ballston Spa Board of Education.