Traffic roundabouts are coming to a neighborhood near you. Are they safe?

Here’s how to safely navigate a traffic roundabout

Washington State Department of Transportation shows you how to drive in a roundabout.
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Washington State Department of Transportation shows you how to drive in a roundabout.

Q: A national insurance group recently reported that roundabouts are safer to traverse than standard intersections controlled by signals or stop signs. What is the future of roundabouts in greater Pierce County?

A: Before we get into that, let us first say, “Hello, again, dear readers.” It’s been a minute.

After an extended hiatus due to boring reasons not worthy of your attention, we are back in the driver’s seat here at Traffic Q&A headquarters. We’ll do our best to keep to a weekly schedule.

Now, let us loop back to the question at hand. (See what we did there with the “loop”? We slay ourselves.)

The good folks at reported recently that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found “roundabouts not only helped reduce crashes in areas that would would typically employ a traditional intersection but also they nearly eliminate the most severe kinds of crashes.”

Those would be the T-bone and head-on variety.

The IIHS study looked at Washington state, which has about 300 roundabouts. There are a number in Pierce County, including a handful in Tacoma, four in the unincorporated area and three in Lakewood.

This verbiage appears on the state Department of Transportation website:

“Roundabouts reduced injury crashes by 75 percent at intersections where stop signs or signals were previously used for traffic control, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).”

They also, according to IIHS and federal government studies, resulted in:

A 37 percent reduction in overall collisions.

A 90 percent reduction in fatality collisions.

A 40 percent reduction in pedestrian collisions.

Seems to us, from a safety standpoint anyway, that roundabouts are a good idea.

Local traffic officials seem to like them. Tacoma, Lakewood and Pierce County say they can be a good alternative in many areas.

“Generally, for each capital project that replaces a signalized intersection, the city evaluates if a roundabout is a feasible option ...,” said Weston Ott, capital projects manager with the Lakewood Public Works Engineering Department. “The reason that the city considers roundabouts ... has to do with long-term maintenance cost and safety for pedestrians and vehicles.”

Roundabouts can be more expensive to build because they can require the acquisition of right of way, but they generally are less expensive to maintain, said Dana Brown, assistant division manager for Tacoma Public Works.

So, what does the future hold? We asked around (groan) to find out.

Lakewood is considering new roundabouts as part of its Veterans Drive improvement project, along its Washington Boulevard corridor in the Lake City neighborhood, at the entrance of Fort Steilacoom Park off 87th Street Southwest and Elwood Drive, and in Lakewood Towne Center at 59th Avenue Southwest and Towne Center Boulevard.

WSDOT also is planning three of them as part of the Interstate 5 widening project along Joint Base Lewis-McChord: two at the Thorne Lane off-ramp to Union Avenue Southwest and Murray Road Southwest and another at the Berkeley Avenue Southwest intersection with Union Avenue Northwest.

Roundabouts also are part of the discussion as Tacoma works on a subarea plan for the Tacoma Mall neighborhood, Brown said.

Pierce County spokeswoman Libby Catalinich talked to the county’s traffic engineers on our behalf.

Roundabouts, Catalinich said via email, can be “a good design option” and are “selected when deemed appropriate.”

“Factors include the traffic volumes and the percentages of left-turning vehicles, the volumes of trucks, buses and emergency vehicles, the number of pedestrians and bicycles expected and, ultimately, the cost associated with acquiring enough land area that would be needed to construct a roundabout of sufficient size/circumference to accommodate all those aspects,” she wrote.

“We look forward to having more roundabouts at county intersections in the near future.”

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Adam Lynn is the local news editor and writes the Traffic Q&A column for The News Tribune. He has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, most of it in Washington state.