Circular sublimity in Salmon Creek
Sunday, September 4, 2011
Confronting danger with confidence and aggression is a hallmark of modern journalism. Such was my valor Thursday as I approached the Salmon Creek traffic roundabout that had opened the day before. As I drove closer, the air became filled with blood-curdling screams, the sounds of crunching metal, sirens and public mayhem. Then I discovered my car radio was on the wrong station.
As I drove into the new intersection at Northeast 10th Avenue and Northeast 136th Street (behind the Fred Meyer store), it occurred to me why many people detest roundabouts, which are becoming more prevalent in America. These people simply cannot stand the thought of yielding … to anyone or anything. They don’t mind stopping at a red light and idling for 60 seconds in the middle of the night at a deserted intersection. But yield? They’d sooner be waterboarded!
The new Salmon Creek roundabout surely will be showered with the same contempt that is heaped upon other roundabouts by people who simply don’t know what they’re talking about, insist they know more than the experts and intuitively resist all change in their lives.
Count me out of that crowd. On Thursday, this intrepid columnist drove into the Salmon Creek roundabout, then drove out of it and lived to write about it. In fact, I actually enjoyed the free-flowing circular sublimity.
Some complaints about roundabouts are flat illogical. For example, yes, large trucks have difficulty negotiating roundabouts. And, yes, those large tire tracks over and inside the inner curbs prove this point.
I’ve heard the same complaint about trucks and roundabouts in Woodland, where two roundabouts were built near the new Walmart and a third is under construction. But as explained by Clark County Public Works spokesman Jeff Mize: “People have a mistaken impression that trucks are not making it through the roundabout because (the trucks are driving) on the curb. But that is precisely what that raised island is there for.” It’s called a truck apron, and as reported in a recent Columbian story, the state Department of Transportation intentionally designs roundabouts in such a way. A truck’s large back wheels can ride up on the apron, but the curb is high enough to discourage use by smaller vehicles.
Another complaint is that roundabouts reduce traffic speeds. (Hint: They’re supposed to.) But the good thing is that they allow traffic to yield and merge, usually without stopping.
Then there’s this lament: Drivers become frightened in roundabouts. (Hint: They’re supposed to.) As Tom Vanderbilt of slate.com reports: “The fact that roundabouts may ‘feel’ more dangerous to the average driver is a good thing: It increases vigilance.” It’s a stark contract to this: “It’s unlikely the average driver killed or severely injured in a high-speed ‘T-bone’ crash as they drove through a green light felt much risk.”
But what really irks me about roundabout critics is the same thing that’s so annoying about all forms of public infrastructure (bridges, roads, buildings, etc.): Under-informed, self-styled experts think they’re smarter than the certified authorities. The truth is, Clark County traffic and planning experts spent long hours researching and designing the Salmon Creek roundabout. They looked at computer modeling systems. They considered statistics compiled nationwide, which — as the Columbian story reported using data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — show that roundabouts reduce injury crashes by 75 percent and fatal collisions by 90 percent. How? As I’ve explained before, roundabouts eliminate left turns, U-turns, red lights and most T-bone collisions.
Of course, none of this will stop the status-quo-huggers from complaining about traffic roundabouts. And to them, I offer a “larger question” posed by Vanderbilt, “whether people who cannot manage to merge at low speed into a counter-clockwise circle and, yes, perhaps even change lanes in that circle before finding the correct exit, should actually be holding licenses that enable them to operate heavy machinery in the first place.”