The roundabout way to control road traffic
Traffic circles cropping up across Ontario cities, towns that believe they are safer, but some groups disagree.
By KRISTIN RUSHOWY
Aug. 4, 2017
They may drive motorists crazy - and initially cause confusion - but municipalities are increasingly turning to roundabouts as a way to keep traffic flowing and reduce serious accidents.
But with more of these intersections - popular in Europe for over a century, but becoming more common in Ontario only in recent years — it’s time that the Highway Traffic Act is updated to include roundabouts, says a Tory MPP whose Waterloo-area riding is the traffic-circle capital of the province.
“From a motorist’s perspective, I love roundabouts versus intersections,” said Michael Harris (Kitchener-Conestoga). “They are way . . . safer. The biggest thing, when my family is in the van, are the (traditional) intersections, which scare the hell out of me. Even when I go through them, I’m looking left and right,” worrying about serious collisions.
But there are issues with roundabouts and drivers unfamiliar with navigating them - particularly pedestrian safety, which some critics say are the weaknesses of roundabouts.
“Five years ago, there was a major incident in the region where a student was crossing, and she was hit by a bus. And from there we identified that there’s nothing mentioned in the Highway Traffic Act as it pertains to traffic roundabouts,” said Harris, who had been advocating for an update to legislation for several years.
“People struggle. If they are not used to roundabouts, they struggle. My parents, for years, avoided them.”
Waterloo Region now has more than 50 roundabouts. While roundabouts lead to higher accident rates, they are almost all minor fender-benders or side-swipes with little damage and few, if any, injuries - no head-on collisions or T-bone accidents. One local study found that despite the higher numbers of crashes, roundabouts are still are the safer bet.
Ela Shadpour did her master’s thesis at Wilfrid Laurier University on the social cost of roundabouts versus signalled intersections because it was such a hot topic in the local media. The Waterloo Region Record has covered the issue extensively.
Her study found that accident rates are higher - much higher when roundabouts are first installed, compared to signalled intersections - but most of them were minor. Given the nature of the crashes, roundabouts took much less of a toll on drivers and society - less severe injuries, if any, and no fatalities, she found.
Changing lanes or knowing what lane to exit in, “that’s what’s very confusing, at the earliest stages,” said Shadpour. “I really believe as time goes by, people learn how to drive in roundabouts.”
Previous studies have shown that over time, the number of accidents drops.
Ontario’s transportation ministry is involved with roundabout installation when the intersection involves a provincial highway. Sheri Graham, manager of its traffic office, said the first one opened in Picton in 2009, and the province now has about 19 currently in use and another 50-plus on the way.
“Typically (with roundabouts) we see lower speeds, and when it comes to collisions, a lower operating speed can result in a better outcome . . . they are less severe type of collisions, and you don’t necessarily have rear-end collisions,” she said.
Head-on collisions, she added, are eliminated “because all the vehicles are travelling in the same direction. We see more of the side-swipe type of collisions as compared to other types.”
She said pedestrian rules are the same as any intersection.
Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca said current legislation covers pedestrians and roundabouts, which are “safer, more efficient and improve the flow of traffic. All of the elements required to navigate a roundabout are in the Highway Traffic Act. New drivers can also refer to the province’s official driver’s handbook, which includes a section on how to safely drive through roundabouts.
“That being said, we know that there is always more work to be done so we will continue to monitor roundabouts across the province and work with our municipal and road safety partners to make improvements where necessary.”
In Waterloo Region, planners say the safety and traffic flow benefits are behind the boom in roundabouts, and it also means road capacity and traffic flow can be increased without adding lanes.
Bob Henderson, manager of transportation engineering, said roundabouts do take up more land, and that can be an issue. And using them isn’t automatic; the region runs collision prediction models “and there might be areas in the region where a signal will perform really well . . . but in general, roundabouts will result in fewer injuries and fewer fatal injuries.”
He said there is typically about a 20-per-cent increase in collisions with a roundabout versus a traditional intersection, but few injuries.
“We’ve had roundabouts since 2004, and we haven’t incurred any fatal incidents,” Henderson said.
While some have said roundabouts are unfriendly to pedestrians, he said they are used in Waterloo by those walking, on bikes and motorists - even area Mennonites travelling by horse and buggy.
He said the region has asked the province to consider updating driver testing to include roundabouts, in communities where they are located.
Mississauga has also been moving toward roundabouts, saying they mean less travel delays, lower speeds and “fewer conflict points between vehicles,” said Leslie Green, who is manager of transportation projects. She and road safety supervisor Colin Patterson say roundabouts require less maintenance and have no electricity costs. Land needs, however, and construction present extra costs.
The city will soon have four roundabouts - the first one opened in 2011, at Duke of York Blvd. and Square One Dr. - and three more are in the works for 2019.
Like Waterloo, the city launched a public education campaign to help drivers navigate roundabouts, and it says there are fewer collisions at roundabouts than traditional intersections, and no reported incidents involving those on foot or on bike.
Harris has put forward a private member’s bill, the Safe Roundabouts Act, that he said would modernize the Highway Traffic Act to include roundabouts. The bill asks the government to first consult the experts regarding everything from safety to speed limits to signage - including “uniformity of road design standards” to help ease driver confusion.
The CAA of South Central Ontario said it first spoke to Harris five years ago when he began to push for clearer roundabout rules. The CAA supports municipalities in choosing what’s right for the communities, and “we’ve always been supportive of the concept that provides additional safety measures for road users,” said spokesperson Elliott Silverstein.
Harris said there’s inconsistency for pedestrians as well, with some intersections where they have the right of way and others where they yield to traffic.
“We are seeing more and more communities with roundabouts,” he said. “Now is the time to get it right.”