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Are roundabouts dangerous? So far, yes

Moorland Road roundabouts have two of city's three highest crash rates although severity has decreased

Sept. 1, 2009

New Berlin — After negotiating his way through the Moorland Road/Rock Ridge roundabout to take in a movie at the Ridge Cinemas, Steffen Smith didn't mince words when asked about driving through the circle of asphalt.

"I don't like them," he said. "They're not as safe as they wanted them to be. People don't know if they should yield or go, and that creates a hazard."

Smith made it through the roundabout with no problem, but dozens of motorists have been less fortunate.

In fact, new figures from the city show that drivers were more likely to have a crash in the Moorland Road/Rock Ridge roundabout last year than at any other major intersection in New Berlin.

There were 2.08 crashes per 1 million vehicles through the intersection, the highest crash rate among the top 25 New Berlin intersections in 2008.

New Berlin's other roundabout, at Moorland Road and Interstate 43, had the third highest crash rate with 1.43 crashes per 1 million vehicles.

Those figures are based on accidents reported to the state - those that involve injuries or more than $1,000 in property damage. Eight of the city's top 25 intersections had crash rates more than 1 per 1 million vehicles in 2008, an indication that the intersection should be looked at for safety improvements, city officials say.

Roundabouts take the place of traffic lights at intersections. Motorists drive around in a circle counterclockwise in the middle of the intersection and exit onto the street they want.

The state built both New Berlin roundabouts: the one at I-43 and Moorland Road, and the Moorland Road/Rock Ridge roundabout, a short distance south of there.

The Rock Ridge roundabout had 19 reportable accidents in 2008 and the I-43 roundabout had 17.

In terms of total accidents last year, the most dangerous intersection was Moorland Road and Greenfield Avenue, where there were 30 crashes. But there is so much traffic driving through the crossroads that its crash rate of 1.57 per million vehicles ranked second in the city.

Reasons cited for high rates

It is hardly a surprise that the roundabouts had such high accident rates, however. Both were under construction most of last year while traffic struggled through them. On top of that, drivers were trying to get used to the new form of intersection.

"It's a whole new driving experience," Police Chief Joseph Rieder said. "It's a matter of drivers getting comfortable with roundabouts and paying attention to the signs."

Now that construction is finished and drivers can concentrate on getting used to the roundabouts, Rieder said he hopes the accident rate will go down.

But he said the number of accidents at the Rock Ridge/Moorland Road roundabout is significantly higher than what it was at the two intersections with traffic lights in that section of the road that were replaced by the roundabout.

Injury accidents down

While there are more accidents at the roundabout, the number of injury accidents is way down.

Because everyone is basically driving in the same direction, roundabouts eliminate the severe T-bone crashes of signalized intersections, Rieder said.

Of the 44 reportable and nonreportable accidents at Rock Ridge/Moorland in a 15-month period from the end of 2007 through January 2009, only three were injury accidents, he said. That is far lower than the seven out of 13 accidents that were injury accidents at the Rock Ridge and Moorland intersection with traffic lights, Rieder said. Those 13 accidents happened over a period of seven years.

"That's quite a reduction in injury accidents," he said.

Two more roundabouts are now under construction at I-43 and Racine Avenue and should open in November.

As to whether roundabouts are better than traffic lights, Ronald Schildt, New Berlin division engineer for streets and transportation, said it depends on how comfortable individual drivers are with them. Many Moorland Road motorists have never seen a roundabout, and they find themselves negotiating some of the biggest roundabouts in the state, Schildt said. Three lanes at some points is a lot to handle, he said.

A few confused drivers have stopped in the middle of the roundabouts, something motorists should never do, he said.

"It was confusing the first time," said Andy Zientek, assistant manager at the Ridge Cinemas. But he said he is used to it now. "It's nicer to look in one direction for traffic."

But the theater staff has heard grumbling from patrons about the roundabout, Zientek said.

"It sucks," said Mario Viloria of West Allis, after he negotiated the Moorland/Rock Ridge round. "People don't know how to use it."

Must be considered

The city must consider installing roundabouts if they ask for federal or state money on intersection projects, Schildt said.

Only two of the 25 major intersections are New Berlin's sole responsibility, and he said he would not recommend roundabouts for either of them when they need to be reconstructed. Creating a roundabout at the 124th Street/Lincoln Avenue intersection would require using some of the land of the golf course that is there, he said. And the Calhoun Road/Coffee Road intersection just needs a couple of turn lanes, so the city can still use federal dollars for that and not construct a roundabout, Schildt said.

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