County gets first roundabout

The wheels on the bus go "roundabout."

That’s the phrase students at the new Newton-Conover Middle School may be singing as they ride home from school next year.

The main entrance at the new, state-of-the-art school will be flanked by a traffic roundabout instead of a four-way stop or signal light.

It is the first roundabout in Catawba County on a state or municipal road.

Roundabouts are designed to ease congestion at major intersections through circular, free-flowing traffic patterns. They were once a rarity in North Carolina, but are quickly becoming more popular because of the safety and money-saving benefits they bring.

“They’ve really become a solution to a lot of congestion and intersection issues,” said John Tippett, transportation planner at the Western Piedmont Council of Governments.

“When intersections reach congestion levels where they need a signal light or traffic volume is going to warrant a signal light, they are starting to evaluate whether a roundabout should be built rather than a signalized intersection."

Traffic signals can be expensive, especially at a four-way intersection. After installation fees and yearly maintenance costs, signals can easily run more than $100,000.

However roundabouts, which function through a process of traffic yielding to the right, don’t require any signals or computerization.

They are designed to keep traffic moving, which can spring other benefits as well, Tippett said.

“It works in many cases because it keeps traffic moving, which is also good for air quality,” Tippett said. “If it’s designed right, there is minimal delay.”

The middle school’s roundabout was recommended by the N.C. Department of Transportation, said Newton-Conover City Schools (NCCS) Superintendent Dr. Barry Redmond.

“More and more roundabouts are being put in because they are proven to be much safer,” Redmond said.

According to a NCDOT safety study of 54 roundabouts statewide, roundabouts reduced all crashes by 46 percent, injury crashes by 75 percent and frontal impact crashes by 76 percent.

Not everyone is pleased with the future roundabout, and NCCS board member Jim Stockner has called it “one of the most controversial things for this county right now.”

Because of its unfamiliar traffic pattern, it may take time for drivers to get used to the traffic circle. Tippett said there can be an influx of “fender benders” when a new roundabout is introduced in an area.

“For motorists that have never used a roundabout, it takes some acclamation and experience,” Tippett said. “There is some hesitation when you enter a roundabout.

Once you get who yields to whom, though, it works OK, but there is some education early on."

Another common skepticism about roundabouts is their inability to conduct unusually large or long vehicles, such as buses.

Redmond doesn’t think that will be a problem for school buses that will enter and exit through the roundabout each day before and after school.

“We think it will go pretty smooth. They don’t anticipate any problem with buses,” Redmond said. “It should add to the speed of moving traffic. It’s a matter of people getting used to the idea.”

On Wednesday, cars, pickups and even large FedEx and UPS shipping trucks maneuvered with relative ease through the roundabout still being constructed. Unlike other roundabouts in larger cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, this traffic circle is one-lane and will have four possible turn-off streets.

Designers originally planned to plant vegetation on the inside of the roundabout circle, but they determined plants would be “too distracting to the drivers,” Redmond said at a recent NCCS school board meeting.

NCCS is compiling information for parents, families and bus drivers that will use the roundabout at the new school, which is due to be completed in April 2012.

Tips for navigating a roundabout:

* Slow down as you approach the roundabout, and watch for pedestrians in the crosswalk.

* Continue toward the roundabout and look to your left as you near the yield sign and dashed yield line at the entrance to the roundabout.

Yield to traffic already in the roundabout.

* Once you see a gap in traffic, enter the circle and proceed to your exit. If there is no traffic in the roundabout, you may enter without yielding.

* Look for pedestrians and use your turn signal before you exit, and make sure to stay in your lane as you navigate the roundabout.