Column: Going round and round about the roundabout

Maybe it's because I'm a teacher, but I believe that almost anyone can learn almost anything. Multiplication tables. States and capitals.

Anything. However, a few procedures must be followed. First, learners must be motivated to learn. Then, they must be given adequate guidance and chances to practice. But motivation comes first.

Take the roundabout for example. There isn't much motivation when the city says, "It's only temporary. If you don't like it we'll take it out."

And as for guidance? Very little was done in the way of public education. We did, however, have plenty of chances to practice, but practice it wrong. As a teacher I know that without guidance, practice doesn't make perfect; practice just makes permanent. I also know that once something is learned incorrectly, you have to do it right at least twenty-one times to fix it.

So let's start over, the way we teachers do when our students don't understand.

Let's start with motivation.

During all of the hullabaloo about the cost and safety concerns - and because I live in Riverview - I went to the forum at the Community Center. I also did a little research. I learned that Carson City isn't the only community with a circular traffic-calming device.

"Modern Roundabouts," as they are called in highway engineering parlance, have evolved from earlier traffic circles and rotaries. They have been growing in use and popularity worldwide since 1990. Las Vegas had two of the first in the West. Why? Lots of reasons, but mainly safety.

It turns out that the traditional "cross" is the most dangerous kind of intersection. Roundabouts reduce accidents by an estimated 50 percent. The number of accidents, the severity of accidents, and the cost per accident were all reduced by controlling traffic with a roundabout instead of stop signs or signals.

"But that doesn't make sense," you say. "Accidents at the Fifth and Edmonds roundabout were nearly double what they were before."

It also turns out that anytime an intersection is changed, accidents go up for awhile for one simple reason: habit. Driving a certain intersection in a certain way becomes automatic. Case in point: the confusion of drivers on the morning after the

roundabout's overnight transformation back into a four-way stop. A very scary morning.

But back to why roundabouts are safer. Think about speed and angle of impact.

If someone blows through a red light or stop sign, there is no telling how fast he might be going, but chances are you'll be hit broadside. A very serious crash, severe injuries, maybe death. Whereas accidents in a roundabout will likely occur at a reduced - OK, somewhat reduced - speed. You'll more likely be sideswiped, a generally less serious accident.

Roundabouts have a splitter at the entry which causes drivers to slow down twice, once to make that curve then again to reverse and match the curve needed to negotiate the circle. Also, the center apron on the permanent roundabout will be higher and more abrupt than before, intentionally dissuading all but the semis and dump-trucks from rolling over it. Others will incur severe front-end damage, but even the big trucks will have to slow down.

Unlike signal systems, according to Tony Redington in "The Emergence of the Modern Roundabout as a Reality in Vermont," roundabouts "self-police vehicle speeds and calm traffic about 100 yards in each direction, ... enable U-turns, save energy, reduce pollution and introduce beauty to intersections."

The Truckee roundabout is loaded with lupines.

Roundabouts also cut the delay per car at peak hours by one-half to two-thirds.

Hmmm. Safety and efficiency. Pretty motivating. How about some guidance?

When Montpelier, which every fourth-grader knows is the capital of Vermont, constructed its first roundabout in the mid-'90s, they instituted a huge public education campaign. A committee prepared news releases, brochures, and public service announcements on how to walk, bike, and drive the roundabout.

Guess what? Surveys showed most folks liked it. It moved traffic more efficiently than before. Accidents were down.

Carson City's little experiment with the roundabout was doomed to fail - not

because roundabouts are bad, but because people are slow to learn new ways of doing things when they aren't given some pretty good reasons.

I applaud the fact that an innovative design, backed by years of international experience and research, was proposed to solve a problem. But I think that the temporary roundabout may have done more harm than good.

When the permanent roundabout is finished soon, we'll start learning all over again. I hope there will be a significant public education effort on the part of the Nevada Department of Transportation and the city, as well as an increased presence by the sheriff and Nevada Highway Patrol for the first few months, issuing warnings and citations until drivers get the idea. Teachers call that "guided practice."

If this doesn't work then natural consequences will take over. As my friend Bill says, "It won't be long now till the alignment shops in town will be offering 'Roundabout Specials.'"

As I said before, almost anyone can learn almost anything. Almost.

(Lorie Smith Schaefer and her husband have lived in Carson City for over 20 years. They have raised two daughters who are now in college. Lorie is a reading specialist at Seeliger School and a consultant with the Northern Nevada Writing Project.)


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