Going in circles not so bad with roundabouts

Remember the childhood game Red Light, Green Light? One child faced a group of children waiting to rush him the second he spun around and shouted "green light." When he turned back around and shouted "red light," the kids had to stop right away or risk being disqualified.

Sometimes that’s what Snohomish County traffic intersections seem like. It’s no secret traffic is getting worse by the second and everyone is zipping down streets trying to beat the lights, sometimes at the risk of getting into a serious crash.

Local communities could take a hint from the city of Monroe and explore the possibilities of traffic roundabouts at certain intersections.

As other communities throughout the country, and even the Western states, are discovering, roundabouts can work really well at otherwise awkward or slow intersections. Already a hit in Europe, the roundabout – also called a traffic circle – features an island in the middle of an intersection. Drivers approaching the circle yield to those cars already in the roundabout and then enter, traveling counter-clockwise.

"They’re safer. They’re much more efficient," said Ron Cameron, an engineer with Reid Middleton Engineers in Everett. "Roundabouts certainly have a place, but they’re not the answer to everything."

They wouldn’t work at certain intersections, such as downtown grids, because the circles take up a lot more space than a regular right-angle intersection. But they may be an option for city and county planners who are noticing increased traffic at an intersection and want to prepare for the next 20 to 30 years. Wisely, that’s what Monroe city officials are doing for the increasingly busy intersection at Highway 522, Tester Road and 164th Street, where high school students and gravel truck drivers come head to head.

Roundabouts may seem tedious because they slow down traffic to about 20 mph, but they actually speed up the process of driving through an intersection. Instead of having to wait a minute or more at a traffic light, drivers wait a matter of seconds to merge into the circle. And the circles reduce the number of accidents, studies show. No more cars sneaking through red lights and nearly crashing with other cars in the process. No more getting stuck in the middle of an intersection because the light turned red. Imagine eliminating the clogged traffic at the insane intersection of Evergreen Way and Casino Road. Ahh, we can dream, can’t we?

The downside is that roundabouts can cost a lot at first. The upside is they save money in the long run. The question is, are we willing to put up the money now so we can alleviate future traffic misery? Roundabouts cost more initially because of the land that is needed to build them. Cities looking to ward off problems at intersections should start considering that aspect now before it’s too late or too expensive to buy the property.

Roundabouts are not for the faint of heart and they definitely take some getting used to. Despite our state’s less than stellar driving reputation, we could handle it. Drivers may end up going in circles at first, but it sure beats the stop-go, stop-go traffic we have now.

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