Yielding to the roundabout reality requires some rules of the road

Trucks, automobiles and a paving machine navigated the Roundabout Wednesday morning. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

At some point more about a century ago, the exact date is likely buried along with a front page headline in a stack of paper, the first traffic stop sign was planted alongside the first paved Vineyard road. In another century, chroniclers of Island life will not need to dig deep to find the first tweet about our first roundabout.

The replacement of the four-way intersection with a roundabout continues to spur debate and generate questions about the proper way for motorists to navigate one of the biggest changes in Vineyard traffic patterns in decades.

Essentially, while times and vehicles have changed, the basic rules of the road remain rooted in courtesy and common sense.

An informal survey by The Times of government publications and reporting across the country in communities that have also installed roundabouts reveals there are some basic driving concepts that underpin the rules.

Basic concept

According to a publication distributed by the Massachusetts Franklin Regional Council of Governments, “A Roundabout is generally a circular shaped intersection where traffic travels in a counterclockwise direction around a center island.

Vehicles entering the circulating roadway must yield to vehicles already circulating. Roundabouts have specific design elements that require vehicles to approach and proceed through the intersection at slow speeds, increasing safety and efficiency.

Roundabouts have a proven track record in the U.S., with several studies showing significant traffic operation and safety benefits after Roundabouts were installed.

Roundabouts are often confused with rotaries and for that reason are viewed unfavorably by many. Although both are circular intersections, roundabouts differ in size (considerably smaller), capacity (increased volume of traffic they can process) and safety (reduced number and severity of crashes), according to Franklin County.

Eyes open

At first glance, instructions for navigating a roundabout appear obvious. For example, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) advises, “Drivers should determine where they want to go.”

A Martha’s Vineyard driver entering the new roundabout has a one-in-three chance of making the correct choice: Barnes Road; Airport Road (also referred to as Barnes Road); and the Edgartown or Vineyard Haven end of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

One benefit of a roundabout is that if you are uncertain of where you want to go, you can keep circulating until you make a decision.

FDOT advises drivers to “approach the roundabout as you would a typical four-way intersection, stay to the right of the splitter island, and slow down to 10–15 mph.

“Watch for bicyclists and allow for them to merge into the entry lane. Watch for and yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk or waiting to cross. Yield to traffic already in the roundabout.”

A search revealed no such clear explanation for navigating Five Corners in Vineyard Haven.

An important piece of advice from FDOT is “Do not turn left at the splitter island.”

Doing so would be the equivalent of driving the wrong way on a one-way street. It should be obvious but anyone who has watched a driver with out-of-state plates driving the wrong way down Main Street in Vineyard Haven knows these things happen.

One more piece of commonsense advice from Florida: Once you are in the Roundabout, do not stop except to avoid a collision; you have the right–of–way over entering traffic.

According to the Franklin Council of Governments, “Roundabouts do not require any new driving skills. At all Roundabouts, drivers must always yield the right-of-way to vehicles in the circulating roadway.

“Entering a Roundabout requires basically the same skills as making a right turn out of a driveway, i.e. first yield to pedestrians on the sidewalk, then check for traffic approaching from the left. If there is traffic, yield and wait for a suitable gap. If there is none, make the turn and enter the traffic stream.”

By bike and foot

The Vineyard roundabout design provides four-foot shoulders to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists.

The general rule is that cyclists can either ride with traffic inside the roundabout or use the crosswalks appropriately.

Cyclists who ride with traffic must follow the same rules as vehicles and must yield as they enter the roundabout. Since traffic moves slowly in the circle, cyclists should be able to travel at or near the same speed as motorists, staying in line with circulating traffic.

Pedestrians must cross only at crosswalks, and always stay on the designated walkways. They must never cross to the central island. Cross the roadways one direction at a time. Use the median island as a halfway point where you can check for approaching traffic.

Safety first

Research in the U.S. and abroad has shown that Roundabouts experience lower crash rates than both traffic signal and stop-sign controlled intersections, according to the Franklin publication. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted a study of 24 intersections located throughout the U.S. where Roundabouts replaced traffic signals or stop signs. This study found fatality and incapacitating injury crashes were reduced by 90 percent, injury crashes were reduced by 7 percent, pedestrian related crashes were reduced by 30 to 40 percent and overall crashes were reduced by 39 percent.

The intersection originally had a two-way stop system with stop signs on Airport Road and Barnes Road. After several severe accidents, additional stop signs were added at the intersection on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

In May 2006 the Martha’s Vineyard Commission prepared an analysis of possible improvements to the intersection for the town of Oak Bluffs. The four options were the addition of a right turn lane, a traffic signal, a traffic signal with turning lanes, and a roundabout.

The report determined that a roundabout would provide the safest option for vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, offer the highest level of service, ensure the best air quality and most attractive landscaping, and impact abutters the least. It ranked second highest in cost, behind a traffic signal with turning lanes.