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No way around it – roundabouts safer than signals, signs

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) continues to make a case for roundabouts. And recent studies show them to be safer alternatives to stoplights and signals.

Read the full story from The Daytona Beach News-Journal below.

Florida studies show roundabouts safer than signals, signs

The Daytona Beach News-Journal
By Mark Harper
June 9, 2016
DELAND — The fatal crash that took the lives of Sandra Lopes and her three small grandchildren on April 5 delivered near-unanimous public opinion that something must be done about a dangerous intersection.

The Florida Department of Transportation, armed with studies and years of research, moved swiftly, announcing its remedy — a roundabout — just two days later.

But many motorists in this rural area between DeLand and the St. Johns River are struggling to keep up. More than 1,000 signed a petition urging the state to reconsider and instead install a traffic signal where State Road 44 meets Grand Avenue.

Lopes’ family and transportation officials, though, are making the case for roundabouts, which are emerging as lower-speed, lower-cost — and safer — alternatives to stoplights.

* * *

Lopes, 48, of DeLeon Springs, was headed west in a Jeep on State Road 44 when another vehicle crossing on Grand Avenue failed to yield. Fiery crash. Tragedy times four.

Lopes and her grandchildren, Aryana Thomas, Jadyn Thomas and Aleah Faith Zurzolo, ages 2, 4 and 4, all died.

“It’s all over in the blink of an eye,” said Robert Zurzolo. He was planning to marry Lopes on the Fourth of July, and had held all three of those children as babies.

Zurzolo and Kamilia Lopes, Sandra Lopes’ daughter and mother of two of the three children killed, have been outspoken in their support of a roundabout, which a 2015 study shows would reduce the number of crashes over the next two decades by 71 percent. In contrast, the study shows a stoplight would lead to 13 percent fewer accidents. A comparison of construction and maintenance plus the cost of crashes assumes the roundabout will save more than $8 million, according to the study by consultant Kittelson & Associates Inc., Orlando.

Based on that data, Volusia County asked the River to Sea Transportation Planning Organization to put the roundabout on a project priority list, a step toward getting funding to get it built. That was four days before the April 5 crash.

Then, on April 7, at the Volusia County Council’s urging, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold pledged the state will build the roundabout within 10 months. A temporary traffic light was also installed.

Lopes’ fiancé said he’s convinced a roundabout will likely stop major crashes there.

“It’s just sad that it takes such a devastating accident for people to get and do something about a problem,” Zurzolo said. “That whole road is a problem.”

* * *

Yet in the days that followed the state’s announcement, neighbors who frequent State Road 44, a fast-moving two-lane highway with a posted speed of 55 mph, couldn’t see how a roundabout would be safer than a traffic signal.

They attempted to flash a red signal upon hearing of the roundabout plans.

James Fouts, who goes by the nickname “Jimmy Lonewolf” and lives near DeLand on the Lake County side, started a change.org petition against the roundabout, arguing it’s more dangerous. Nearly 1,100 people signed.

Fouts envisioned fast-moving eastbound State Road 44 traffic failing to yield in the circle to helpless motorcycles.

“Bikes travel from Lake (County) to Daytona and a lot of them meet up at Circle K before heading out,” he wrote in a Facebook post on May 4. “Now you have 20 or 30 bikes trying to turn left from Grand Ave to SR 44 having to go right to go around the roundabout … It’s a accident waiting to happen.”

Emotional, Kamilia Lopes argued that roundabouts require lower speeds, so crashes won’t be as destructive. She asked him to stop his petition. Fouts agreed.

But the petition remains online and other neighbors continue to make the case against roundabouts.

Jeffery Holley, also from eastern Lake County, wrote on Facebook: “I would never dream of putting people though the pain of dealing with a roundabout in their community when the best solution is a traffic light. Sorry if this sounds heartless but I will not give up my fight against this roundabout nonsense!”

* * *

A year before the rural DeLand crash, the Florida Department of Transportation enacted a new policy. It “will evaluate a roundabout as an alternative each time an intersection is newly constructed or reconfigured,” said Jennifer Horton, a spokeswoman.

That’s because properly designed roundabouts have been proven safer and more cost-effective than stoplights, Horton said. There are 11 in the state system, and nearly 300 overall in the state, according to a department report, but Floridians can expect to see that number grow.

Ruth Steiner, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Florida, was principal investigator in a study that led to the department’s new roundabouts policy. “(With roundabouts), you have eliminated the most unsafe maneuvers at an intersection.”

Those would be the side (or angle) and head-on collisions.

Properly designed roundabouts will reduce speeds to 15 or 20 mph, with the most likely crashes being sideswipes and rear-end collisions, which at lower speeds are less damaging and far less deadly, studies show.

The Kittelson study of the State Road 44-Grand Avenue intersection showed 30 crashes occurred between January 2010 and June 2015. Of those, 22 were angle crashes. The study estimates that a roundabout at that intersection will reduce total crashes by 71 percent and injury crashes by 87 percent.

Motorists’ mindsets play a role in the roundabouts-versus-stoplights analysis.

Per Garder, a University of Maine professor of civil and environmental engineering who has been working on designing safe roundabouts since 1975, said lower and more predictable speeds needed to maneuver in roundabouts are the biggest reason they’re safer. But they “calm” traffic in other ways, too, he argued in an emailed response to questions.

“When we know what is coming, we relax,” Garder wrote. “When we drive on an arterial, and there is a green light in front of us for 60 seconds, almost a mile of driving, we expect the reward of keeping that green light when we get there. Then it suddenly changes, our cake is taken away from us, and we get frustrated and speed up rather than stop.”

Motorists stopped at signals sometimes grow impatient when having to wait 30 to 90 seconds to watch maybe two or three cars pass through an intersection.

“Then, the light switches to green, and the first car in 20 seconds is approaching on the cross street and, since I got the green light, having waited for no reason for a minute, I start up immediately on green,” Garder wrote. “But the guy on the (cross street) has that cake taken away from him and sped up from 40 to 50 (on the 35 mph arterial) and we may collide. If I had been allowed to go 45 seconds earlier, I would have crossed with no traffic around me.”

* * *

In Lake County, a rural intersection south of Astatula — a town of 1,867 northwest of Orlando — was seeing three to four annual crashes over a 10-year period, said Fred Schneider, county engineer.

County Roads 561 and 455 were also seeing increased traffic with growth in the county. It had been a “very odd-looking intersection,” dating to the height of citrus truck traffic, with six stop signs and right-turn ramps going in every direction. A study recommended a roundabout.

“Yes, there were concerns from people that lived in the area,” Schneider said. “They contacted our (county) commissioners. But there was also support from the community.”

Working with the transportation department, the county built a roundabout with lots of safety features: warning signs, a posted speed limit of 20 mph, a digital speedometer that flashes when motorists are above 20, rumble strips and lighting.

The Lake County roundabout opened on July 1, 2015. There has yet to be a crash, Schneider said.

“As people experience a well-designed roundabout … I think they understand the concept of it better and the safety benefits of it,” he said. “If you’re not used to driving one, your idea might be Chevy Chase in ‘European Vacation.’ This thing going around and around.”

But Lake County commissioners were pleased enough to approve funding last week for another new roundabout at County Road 19A and Old 441/Eudora Road near Mount Dora.

* * *

Back over the Volusia County line near DeLand, survey flags are already in the ground.

The transportation department estimates the roundabout at State Road 44 and Grand Avenue will cost $1.4 million, with work beginning in June and being complete in early 2017. For Robert Zurzolo and Kamilia Lopes, that’s not soon enough.

— Staff writers Tony Holt and Patricio G. Balona contributed to this story.

Read original story here.

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