TURNING AROUND AMERICA'S TRAFFIC CRISIS ONE ROUNDABOUT AT A TIME: WHY MORE ROUNDABOUTS MEANS SAFER ROADS AND FEWER AUTOMOBILE DEATHS.

Date01 April 2023
AuthorSussman, Neven

INTRODUCTION

Henry Ford's early twentieth-century breakthroughs in automotive mass production merged the United States into the fast lane toward motor vehicles becoming a dominant mode of personal travel. (1) Today, for an hour a day, ninety percent of Americans over the age of sixteen will buckle into motorized, multi-ton projectiles and propel themselves along a vast infrastructure of roads designed and regulated primarily for expediency of travel, not safety. (2) And while America's obsession with personal locomotion may be a realization of Henry Ford and other industrialists' highest hopes for a modern society, the magnitude of the harm occasioned to America by automobile crashes is certainly far beyond the scope of their imaginations. Traffic crashes are one of the top three causes of unintentional injury death for Americans of all ages. (3) Nearly 40,000 Americans will die in car accidents this year, and an estimated 2.74 million Americans were injured in car accidents in 2019. (4) Equally as horrible, more than 50,000 pedestrians were struck and killed between 2010 and 2019 simply by walking near or crossing roadways. (5) Additionally, traffic fatalities cost Americans around $384 billion per year. (6) Furthermore, "[w]hen quality of life valuations are considered, the total value of societal harm from traffic crashes in the United States in 2010 was an estimated $836 billion." (7) Adjusted for the environmental effects of driving, such as pollution from emissions, the annual death toll caused by driving in the United States rises from roughly 40,000 to nearly 100,000 lives. (8) And less obvious but more insidious is the disproportionate effect of the current traffic crisis, both in terms of crashes and adverse environmental impact, on people of color and other underrepresented communities throughout America. (9)

The American traffic crisis must be met with drastic changes to address the harms caused by vehicle collisions and emissions. However, any radical revision to the vehicular transportation system would have to overcome the entrenched legal, political, and economic incentives that reinforce the promotion of expediency over safety. (10) Even in the face of skyrocketing risks created by confounding behavioral factors like intoxicated driving and speeding, or structural and legal risks such as widening highways, (11) road design favoring speed, (12) and weak traffic law enforcement, American society refers to car crashes as "accidents" and often views their occurrence as an unavoidable cost of living in an advanced society. (13) The structural risks faced by drivers are further compounded by the increasing average size and performance of consumer vehicles. (14) But the severity of the public health crisis presented by increasingly dangerous driving behavior, high-risk driving regulations, bigger and faster cars, and inherently dangerous infrastructure is becoming more of an urgent issue at the highest levels of government. (15) Adjusting infrastructure design and reshaping traffic policy to incentivize and promote safety is America's best chance at ameliorating the traffic death crisis. (16) The recent passage of the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act, designed, among other purposes, "[t]o authorize funds for Federal-aid highways, highway safety programs, and transit programs," has provided substantial funding to tackle the toughest of America's traffic issues. (17)

Although traffic law is the "body of law with which ordinary Americans interact most frequently," (18) "the substance of vehicle and traffic regulation has largely escaped critical analysis." (19) This Note will add to the legal scholarship concerning traffic safety regulation and reform by advocating for the broad implementation of roundabouts at intersections throughout America as a means of combatting traffic and pedestrian injuries and fatalities. Such regulatory and policy changes will also help to address the disproportionate adverse effects poor traffic policy and regulation have on underrepresented populations and the environment. Installing roundabouts in place of signalized and unregulated intersections (20) throughout the country would be a substantial step toward solving the United States' current traffic safety crisis. (21) In addition to eliminating unprotected left turns, (22) roundabouts protect against a critical mass of the risks facing American drivers by dramatically reducing crashes, injuries, and adverse environmental impacts while also promoting efficiency and slower speeds. (23)

  1. BACKGROUND

    Among the toughest of America's traffic issues are the risks faced by drivers traveling through intersections. Fairly described as ubiquitous and inherently dangerous, intersections are "where two or more roads cross each other and activities such as turning left, crossing over, and turning right have the potential for conflicts resulting in crashes." (24) Americans experience this danger in serious ways: twenty-four percent of all fatalities and roughly forty-eight percent of injuries caused by automobile crashes between 2010 and 2019 occurred at intersections. (25) Moreover, nearly all crashes at intersections have causes attributable to drivers. (26) One of the most prevalent pre-crash events reviewed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was turning left. (27) To combat these risks, this Note proposes roundabouts as the dominant form of intersection traffic control in America.

    1. What Is a Roundabout?

      The modern roundabout is a circular intersection that directs the flow of traffic around a raised circular median in a counterclockwise direction. (28) While often confused with earlier iterations of traffic control devices such as traffic circles and rotaries, roundabouts are functionally distinct from their predecessors and consequently provide material advantages in safety and efficiency. Chief among the differences between roundabouts and traffic circles is roundabouts' ability to operate without traffic signals and their requirement that incoming traffic yield to those vehicles already traveling in the roundabout. (29) In contrast, traffic circles often contain traffic signals and operate by giving entering vehicles the right of way; these key operational differences create large disparities in safety and efficiency. (30)

      Vehicles approach roundabouts just as they would a normal signalized intersection; however, to make a right turn, cars enter the roundabout and exit at the first exit.

      A car turns left by entering the roundabout, continuing around the island, and exiting into what is most often the third exit--roundabouts with unique traffic patterns may have more or fewer than the standard four exits.

      To continue straight, a car will enter the roundabout, pass the right turn exit, and continue forward on what is most often the second exit from the roundabout. (33)

      Although both traffic circles and roundabouts can be designed to accommodate multiple lanes of traffic, traffic circles are often designed to accommodate lane changing or weaving within the circle while roundabouts are designed to allow cars to travel through the intersection in one lane. (35)

      Structurally, roundabouts are typically smaller than traffic circles and require drivers to enter the circle facing the island instead of at a shallower angle. (36) The tighter turn radius created by the direct entry angle and smaller island requires drivers to enter and travel through roundabouts at much lower speeds than they would in traffic circles. (37) Additionally, roundabouts handle crossing pedestrian traffic differently than most traffic circles by disallowing pedestrians from crossing through the center island and instead placing crosswalks at least one car length before the entry point of the roundabout. (38)

    2. History

      Today's roundabouts were not the first device to direct the flow of traffic at an intersection in a circular motion around a central object. Rather, the first device of its kind, known as a gyratory or rotary, came when William Phelps Eno--who is often referred to as "the father of traffic control"-suggested in 1903 that traffic in New York City's Columbus Circle should circulate in one direction around an object, (39) most often an illuminated "trestle, metal post or stone column." (40) Eno deployed such posts at the centers of intersections--they were commonly referred to as "silent cop[s]" or "dummy policem[en]"--to serve as the center points around which traffic circulated. (41) But, because drivers often ran into these, iron discs five feet in diameter were installed, and the first rotary traffic control devices were bom. (42) Interestingly--and purportedly without taking influence from Eno's invention three years prior--in 1906, the architect for the city of Paris, Eugene Henard, proposed the installation of "gyratory" traffic control devices at intersections around the city. (43) His proposals required the width of each circle roadway to be "equal to one-quarter of the combined widths of the converging roads, regardless of the size of the central island." (44) In contrast to Eno's preference for a smaller roundabout, Henard ardently supported a larger island diameter of roughly twenty-six feet. (45)

      In the decades that followed, the popularity of gyratory traffic control devices increased dramatically. (46) With the explosion came a desire to increase the capacity of circulating traffic devices, a goal accomplished in part through the installation of larger circles. In one instance in the early twentieth century, the state of New Jersey constructed dozens of large traffic circles following a recommendation of the Highway Commission that "automatically controlled traffic signals be ordered off the New Jersey state highways for causing obstruction." (47) The enthusiasm for gyratory intersection traffic control was not shared by everyone, particularly due to increased congestion stemming from the...

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