Editorial: A dangerous learning curve

The Washington State Department of Transportation’s new-found love affair with roundabouts is perhaps too optimistic.

The DOT now favors a roundabout at the busy Sharpes Corner intersection used by hundreds of Whidbey Islanders each day as they make their way to Anacortes, Burlington and Interstate 5.

Another roundabout is slated to be built an the equally busy intersection of Swantown Road and Highway 20, as well as other areas in Oak Harbor, once funding is secured.

Engineers see the wisdom of roundabouts, and how they efficiently guide traffic through an intersection without stopping. There is no need for expensive traffic signals. Roundabouts naturally slow traffic, thereby avoiding high-speed collisions when someone runs a red light. And one of the most frequent phrases used to defend roundabouts goes something like this: “They work in Europe!”

Unfortunately, American drivers aren’t European, and most don’t think like engineers. Americans, particularly the millions of older ones on the road, are set in their ways and are not anxious to learn anything new when it comes to driving. What will people be thinking when they first approach the new roundabout, either at Sharpes Corner or Cackle Corner, as the Highway 20 and Swantown Road intersection is known to oldtimers in Oak Harbor?

No doubt many drivers will be confused, and dangerously so, as they tackle a roundabout for the first time, and for many times thereafter. They’ll be used to stopping at intersections, or barreling through them. They won’t be anticipating other cars rounding the circle, cars that are supposed to be avoided. And we shudder to think of huge semis rounding the roundabouts. Investors would be wise to give financial backing to collision repair shops to be built near each intersection in time for the unveiling of the roundabouts.

No doubt the DOT has plans to educate the public before any new roundabout is unveiled. But this is one of those cases where something sounds great in theory, but probably won’t work out so great in practice. That’s because engineers can’t relate to the common person’s way of thinking.

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