RICHLAND -- A recent meeting between a Richland man and state transportation officials brought greater understanding of their differences, but didn't result in a meeting of the minds on the Highway 240 roundabout.
Gene Weisskopf, who started a petition drive to get changes he said will make the roundabout safer, told the Herald on Friday that he left the discussion with Department of Transportation traffic engineers better knowing their goals for the roundabout, but also reaffirming his belief they got it wrong.
"On a blackboard, I can see how it's supposed to work, but in the real world, I don't think they've got it," he said.
Don Whitehouse, administrator for the department's South Central Region, said Weisskopf had some interesting ideas his team will evaluate, but in the meantime, they will step up efforts to help drivers understand how to drive through the roundabout without encountering dangerous conflicts.
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"He actually has some good suggestions to limit some of these conflict points," Whitehouse said. "The trade-off is most of them reduce capacity."
Weisskopf's fundamental problem with the roundabout is that it's painted so that people driving on the inside lane have to cut across the outside lane to exit.
Traditionally, roundabouts are designed so a vehicle can exit only from the outside lane, he said.
He believes the way the 240-Steptoe-Columbia Park Trail roundabout is designed confuses drivers and is a recipe for accidents.
Weisskopf especially is concerned about people on bicycles, who are moving more slowly than cars and might end up in the path of a car trying to make a quick exit onto 240 or Steptoe.
The website he created diagrams the flow of traffic on the roundabout and shows how conflicts can occur. It's at http://au2pb.com/steptoe/#Sign_ the_Petition.
Weisskopf also offered three suggestions for how the roundabout could work more smoothly -- make it one lane instead of two, install traffic signals or change the signs to make the roundabout less confusing and avoid conflicts.
Whitehouse said most of those ideas defeat the roundabout's original purpose, which was to keep traffic from backing up onto 240 as people exit to Columbia Park Trail during peak hours.
Transportation officials estimate 32,000 cars per day go through the roundabout. Traffic there has increased 62 percent compared with traffic counts from 2000, and 25 percent since the roundabout opened in 2007.
"So people are using it," Whitehouse said. "Prior to that, the 240 eastbound exit every afternoon would back up onto the high-speed highway. We had a huge potential for major rear-end accidents. We had to increase the capacity of this intersection."
He said the department chose to build a roundabout at the junction of 240, Columbia Park Trail and Steptoe Street in the Richland Y because heavy traffic tends to flow better through a roundabout than through an intersection with a traffic light.
And roundabouts are safer because people travel through them at lower speeds, and so when accidents happen, they're less severe.
"The roundabout nationwide has helped prevent the T-bone accident, which is the one that kills people," he said.
Department statistics show an average of 30 to 40 accidents per year in the 240 roundabout.
Core Hert, assistant traffic engineer, said that in 2010, 95 percent of the collisions in the 240 roundabout were minor fender benders with no injuries, meaning only 5 percent of crashes resulted in someone being hurt. The typical injury rate for an intersection with a stop light is 40 percent.
More than half of the collisions in the roundabout are caused by drivers failing to yield, he said.
Whitehouse said the biggest hurdle for drivers is not understanding that they must yield to both lanes of traffic in the roundabout when they enter, and that they're not allowed to change lanes once inside.
"It is just like an intersection," he said. "If they want to go straight or turn left, they should be in the left lane. If they want to go straight or turn right, they should be in the right lane."
While Weisskopf agrees that driver behavior might be part of the problem, he thinks the answer is to make the roundabout simpler.
"There are so many near misses, so much confusion. I really think something needs to be done," he said.