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Column: Coming around on the Utica roundabout

Tom Collins
Tom Collins

In March, the NewsTribune reported Utica was considering a roundabout at the intersection of U.S. 6 and Route 178. Our social media promptly blew up and we counted 51.8% of respondents opposed.

You can make it 51.7% now. After four months of sitting in congestion at Utica’s four corners, I have abandoned my skepticism and am ready to try a roundabout. And I invite readers to chime in (keep it civil, please) and share whether they, too, have re-evaluated their position on stop lights or roundabouts.

Motorists were understandably wary of the state’s plans to simply yank out the traffic signals and install a circle to accommodate continuous traffic. However, the evidence is growing that drivers are growing impatient with the waits from westbound and especially eastbound U.S. 6 (there are no left-turn lights) and then making riskier turns amid traffic.

Utica police chief Rodney Damron noted there are fewer crashes since the four-way stop signs have been removed and replaced with stop lights — “It was a step in the right direction” — but he still is concerned about safety. Damron requested signs be posted advising motorists to not pass on the shoulders and it is clear these, too, are frequently ignored.

All of which demands a fresh look at the Illinois Department of Transportation proposal to simply install a traffic circle. The data are rather compelling.

The U.S. DOT cited studies in which overall collisions declined about one-third when controlled intersections were smoothed into roundabouts. And the specific safety data were even more persuasive. The federal DOT said crashes with injuries declined 75% and fatalities dropped by 90%.

Why are roundabouts so much safer? DOT said roundabouts require motorists to adhere to lower speed limits (typically 15-20 mph) and ferret out those motorists who gun it hoping to beat a red light. And while rear-end collisions won’t be eliminated in a roundabout, T-bone and head-on collisions become an impossibility.

The other figure that stands out is the volume of traffic in Utica. Starved Rock State Park calculates their attendance figures based on vehicle counts and that total can approach 450,000 in a given year. True, some of the traffic will come in from Route 71 and Dee Bennett Road; but anecdotally it’s been clear to villagers for some time the crippling traffic is coming from Interstate 80 via Route 178.

U.S. DOT said there are other indirect benefits to using roundabouts. Continuous traffic means less braking and that means less fuel consumption, less noise and fewer emissions than at stop lights.

Roundabouts also produce an effect call traffic calming — reducing vehicle speeds using geometric design rather than traffic control devices — and there is a strong argument to be made that a tourist-driven community such as Utica needs as much calm traffic (to say nothing of calm motorists) as possible.

Any misgivings that I personally harbored were dashed on a recent trip to a European country where roundabouts dominate and clearly outnumber traffic signals, at least in the countryside. My tour group of 43 rode in a 20-ton motor coach and our driver had no difficulty navigating the traffic circles in a vehicle that closely approximates a U.S. tractor-trailer.

The red lights were worth trying, but the growing evidence suggests a roundabout could indeed make the four corners safer and better manage the flow of traffic during peak weekends and holidays.

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