Our opinion: Roundabouts would improve safety on Putney Road

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Some people seem to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to change, even if that change would be preferable to the status quo.

Take, for example, the state's plan to revamp a 1.5-mile portion of Putney Road in Brattleboro, from the Vermont Veterans Memorial Bridge to the roundabout at Interstate 91 Exit 3. The goal, says Ken Upmal, the roadway design project manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, is to improve safety for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

The plan calls for 10-foot, dual-use sidewalks (for bicyclists and pedestrians) on both sides of the road, a landscaped median beginning at Noah's Lane, bus pullouts and signaled crosswalks.

But the most significant change calls for the construction of four, single-lane roundabouts in place of traffic lights — at the intersection of Landmark Hill Drive and Technology Drive; at Chickering Drive; at Royal Plaza where the Hannaford Supermarket is located; and at Hardwood Lane and Black Mountain Road.

The comments on the Reformer's Facebook page were most critical of the four new roundabouts. Ironically, it's this key part of the plan, which would improve safety the most, that seems to have people up in arms.

"Totally stupid idea!!" one reader wrote. "I agree with the sidewalks, but the roundabouts are idiotic!!"

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Several complain that roundabouts are dangerous because people don't know how to use them properly, and they point to the Exit 3 roundabout on Putney Road as proof. However, numerous studies done by traffic experts don't bear that out.

Roundabouts actually reduce injury crashes by 75 percent at intersections where stop signs or signals were previously used for traffic control, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Studies by the IIHS and Federal Highway Administration have shown that roundabouts typically achieve a 37 percent reduction in overall collisions, a 90 percent reduction in fatality collisions, and a 40 percent reduction in pedestrian collisions.

The reasons for the improved safety are simple: Because traffic is constantly flowing through the intersection, drivers don't have the incentive to speed up to try and "beat the light" like they might at a traditional intersection. Furthermore, the curved roads and one-way travel around the roundabout eliminate the possibility for T-bone and head-on collisions.

We concede there was a learning curve when the Exit 3 roundabout was installed nearly two decades ago, but it's still better than the traffic lights that preceded it. In 2007, former Town Planner Jim Mullen said that intersection averaged one fatality a year before the roundabout, and there have been none since. More recent efforts to improve line paintings and signage have made it easier to navigate properly through the intersection — which, we should note, is a two-lane roundabout. The others proposed for Putney Road would be single-lane roundabouts and therefore more straightforward to maneuver through.

For those not convinced that roundabouts are safer and provide more efficient traffic flow, will long-term cost help sway your opinion? Roundabouts eliminate hardware, maintenance and electrical costs associated with traffic signals, which can cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per year.

Roundabouts are also more effective during power outages. Unlike traditional signalized intersections, which must be treated as a four-way stop or require police to direct traffic, roundabouts continue to work like normal.

Considering all of these pros in favor of roundabouts over traffic lights, it leads us to believe that the change people fear most is change itself.


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