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PennDOT touts roundabouts to help motorists in Unity, New Stanton

| Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, 12:57 a.m.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Construction continues on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, at the future site of a roundabout flowing into Interstate 70 in New Stanton.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Construction continues on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, at the future site of a roundabout flowing into Interstate 70 in New Stanton.

Driving in circles is the new way for motorists to navigate a growing number of intersections on Pennsylvania roadways, including the area in Unity where Monastery Drive and St. Vincent Drive meet near the entrance to St. Vincent College.

It's among 32 modern “roundabouts” already in use in the state, which PennDOT says have improved the flow of traffic by replacing stop signs and traffic lights with yielding movements, and have increased safety by eliminating left turns and cross-traffic.

But those benefits can be realized only if motorists know how to move safely and surely, counter-clockwise, through the uncommon circular intersections — prompting PennDOT to release an instructional video showing the proper way for vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians to pass through a roundabout.

Spokeswoman Jan Huzvar acknowledged Wednesday that PennDOT has met resistance from citizens to some of its planned roundabouts.

“They just need to be taught how to navigate them,” she said. “The key is to slow down and yield.”

Proponents say roundabouts also increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists because they need look in only one direction at a time for oncoming vehicular traffic, which should be slow-moving. In Pennsylvania and other states, some have raised concerns that roundabouts, while reducing the most serious accidents, may trigger an increase in fender-benders.

According to PennDOT, a study of the first 10 roundabouts introduced in Pennsylvania beginning in 2005, based on three years of traffic data from before and after installation, showed that total crashes dropped by 16 percent (from 63 to 53) while fatal crashes and crashes with serious injuries were reduced to zero, from two and four, respectively.

Crashes with minor injuries declined by 25 percent (from 16 to 12), but wrecks involving only property damage increased by nearly 15 percent (from 34 to 39), the study indicated.

The latter statistic, according to Huzvar, is common for roundabouts, “especially when installed in areas where people are not familiar with them. As they become more prevalent and people get more familiar with them, the number of crashes is expected to decline.”

The St. Vincent roundabout has been in use since 2009. Thirty others are being built or are expected to be under construction over the next two years — including three single-lane roundabouts that are nearing completion in conjunction with the widening of Interstate 70 in New Stanton and another in Unity that is set to take shape beginning this spring — on Route 981 near Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. Those roundabouts won't include pedestrian crossings.

Project manager Jeff Miller said the New Stanton roundabouts — a pair that will connect I-70 to side streets and another connecting with an extension of Bair Boulevard — are expected to be ready for traffic by February and will be used as a bypass when the Center Avenue bridge over the interstate is closed to traffic this spring.

The new Unity roundabout will bring together Route 981, the airport entrance and a new connector to Charles Houck Road and will be used by local residents as a turn-around later this year when traffic is restricted for reconstruction of 981, project manager Troy Pritts said.

Looking at a pair of more elaborate two-lane roundabouts installed in Washington state, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported in 2013 that the rate of crashes with injuries was at least 34 percent lower than the expected number if traditional intersections had been maintained. But the rate of accidents without injuries was 13 percent higher at one roundabout and 600 percent higher at the other.

Nevertheless, a survey by the institute suggests familiarity breeds content with roundabouts. The portion of surveyed drivers in favor of a roundabout increased from 31 percent before construction to 63 percent after installation, while those strongly opposed dropped from 41 percent to just 15 percent.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622 or jhimler@tribweb.com.

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