Accident Numbers at Hillsborough Roundabout Higher Than Expected

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Raleigh traffic engineers expected an increase in crashes when the Hillsborough and Pullen roundabout opened last year. But, the steady increase they saw was alarming, prompting an investigation into ways to make the intersection safer.

According to city documents provided to the Record, there were 60 low-severity crashes between July 1, 2010 and May 15, 2011. For comparison, there were three between December 21, 2007 and July 1, 2008, prior to the construction of the roundabout.

Senior Transportation Engineer Jed Niffenegger said that staff expected there would be a learning curve for people heading through the dual-lane roundabout for the first time. Not only is it the only of its type in Raleigh, it’s the only one in Eastern North Carolina. Add thousands of new North Carolina State University students who are young, inexperienced drivers and an increase in crashes was inevitable.

Niffenegger said the positive thing about these crashes is that no one was seriously injured. Because of the nature of a roundabout, cars are moving at low speeds, which help keep injuries and property damage at a minimum, he said.

More than half of the accidents occurred on the eastbound corner of Hillsborough Street and Pullen Street. As drivers come around the circle — from either Ferndell Lane or westbound on Hillsborough – they are colliding with cars coming eastbound on Hillsborough who don’t realize that drivers could go south onto Pullen.

“If you remove all of those crashes,” said Niffenegger. “It would be right on par with what we expected.”

Niffenegger said the increase in crashes coincides with the NC State calendar. Crashes increase when school is in session and decrease when it isn’t. But Niffenegger doesn’t know if this is due to an increase in inexperienced drivers or a general population increase.

“I would chalk this up to the complexity of the roundabout,” said Raleigh Transportation Operations Manager Mike Kennon.

What the City is Doing
Because Hillsborough Street is state-owned, the city applied – and exceeded – state standards for traffic devices like signage and markings to lessen the anticipated confusion.

Niffenegger said that when the department realized that the majority of the crashes were happening on the eastbound side of Hillsborough, they installed more flags and signage. Since that action, the crashes seem to have begun decreasing.

The city will meet with the state Department of Transportation this month and analyze the crash data from the previous year to find out if further action is required. It is possible that a capital project might be necessary. But if crashes continue to decrease with the increased signage, then the department might wait before making a decision.

Other crashes, like sideswipes, rear-ends and illegal lane changes, are due to driver irresponsibility, and can’t be fixed from an engineering standpoint.

The city has been working with NCSU to educate students about the intersection and how to safely maneuver it.

NC State’s traffic communication specialist, Christine Klein, said her department is constantly pushing out information to student groups, which then gets disseminated to the student body. Klein said they work closely with student housing, family services, new student orientation and the student media outlets such as Technician and WKNC.

Pamphlets and brochures, including diagrams of the roundabout, are sent around not only to students, but to the staff as well, she said.

Raleigh and Roundabouts
Still, the crash data doesn’t mean Raleigh won’t be using roundabouts in the future. City officials are planning to build another on the western end of Hillsborough Street.

While roundabouts cost more to construct, Transportation Manager Eric Lamb said they are cheaper to maintain than traffic signals, which can cost between $3,000 and $4,000 per signal per month for electricity and maintenance.

Lamb said roundabouts are also safer than traditional intersections. Roundabouts eliminate left turns, which can result in a severe “T-bone” accidents. They also force cars to move more slowly through the intersection, which keeps the severity of the crash low, as seen with the accidents on Hillsborough Street. If someone runs a red light, the result could be catastrophic, Lamb said.

They are also safer for pedestrians and are more aesthetically pleasing, Lamb said.

Roundabouts aren’t perfect, however. They can be dangerous for blind people, who use auditory cues to cross the street. Roundabouts do not have these auditory cues, such as the sound of a car stopping, or the chirps and whistles of a crosswalk.

Lamb said that there has been increased interest from residents for a roundabout at the Five-Points intersection, but there are no plans to install one.

8 thoughts on “Accident Numbers at Hillsborough Roundabout Higher Than Expected

  1. There are crashes because folks do not use their turn signals and often do not yield compounded by the fact that the city of Raleigh does not enforce the traffic violations.

  2. The roundabout is too small and very difficult to use.
    I actually avoid Hillsborough st now because of it.

    It may look pretty but is practical or functional.

  3. The roundabout is too small and very difficult to use.
    I actually avoid Hillsborough st now because of it.

    It may look pretty but is not practical or functional.

  4. Seriously folks? Unless you are a completely inept driver, that roundabout is not difficult to get through. Slightly confusing the first time, I could understand, but after that it’s a cakewalk.

  5. Modern roundabouts are the safest form of intersection in the world. Visit for safety facts. The safety comes from the ‘slow and go’ operation instead of the ‘stop or go fast’ way a stop light works (or the ‘keep going fast’ large traffic circle fantasy). The smaller size of the modern roundabout is what makes them safer and keeps speeds in the 20 mph range. This makes it much easier to avoid a crash or stop for pedestrians. It also means that if a crash happens the likelihood of injury is very low. Safety is the #1 reason there are over 2,300 modern roundabouts in the US today and many more on the way.

    Slow and go also means less delay than a stop light, especially the other 20 hours a day people aren’t driving to or from work. Average daily delay at a signal is around 12 seconds per car. At a modern roundabout average delay is less than five seconds. Signals take an hour of demand and restrict it to a half hour – at best only half the traffic gets to go at any one time. At a modern roundabout four drivers entering from four directions can all enter at the same time. Don’t try that with a signalized intersection.

  6. Every time there is an article about this roundabout, I make this exact same post.

    One lane roundabouts are a breeze. Two lane roundabouts are also a breeze.

    This one, on the other hand, has a quirk that makes it much more difficult to understand for someone who travels it infrequently or for the first time, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why it was designed this way.

    Traveling east on Hillsborough into the roundabout, both lanes are through lanes.
    Traveling south on Pullen, both lanes are through lanes.

    Easy, like a two lane roundabout, right? But, the quirk is:

    Traveling west on Hillsborough, the RIGHT lane is the through lane.
    Traveling north on Pullen, the LEFT lane is the through lane.

    Sit for a while and watch traffic at this roundabout. I’ve done this a couple of times, and I’ve never had to wait long before a car approaches the roundabout from the west on Hillsborough in the left lane expecting to be able to go straight. In that case, they usually just “cut over” in the middle of the roundabout and keep going straight on Hillsborough. Not sure why people expect to be able to go straight from the left lane, but my hunch about why is:
    (1) The roundabout is inconsistent, since northbound on Pullen you DO need to be in the left lane to go straight.
    (2) Westbound signage is inadequate. The sign for which lane to be in isn’t until after Oberlin, and at that point it’s really too late to change lanes.

    Here are a couple (non-exhaustive) approaches to fixing this:

    (1) Better signage? But I think a better solution is to make it more intuitive.
    (2) Make it consistent. Switch it so that westbound on Hillsborough, the left lane is the through lane instead of the right lane.
    (3) Basically, make it a one-lane roundabout. Left lane is through/turn lane from every direction, right lane is right turn only from every direction.

    Reducing this to a one-lane roundabout will be less of an issue once Hillsborough is eventually restriped or rebuilt between the roundabouts at Pullen and Morgan. The plan is, I think, to turn that stretch of Hillsborough from a five-lane configuration into a three-lane configuration with parallel parking on the side.

  7. ^Regarding your last paragraph, orulz, about Hillsborough between Pullen & Morgan: Great idea and I wish they’d do that sooner than later!

  8. ^I’m not sure what the plans are (I’m not sure they’ve even been decied yet.)

    If the plan is simply a restriping between Oberlin and Morgan then that can probably be done for very little money. If that’s all they’re doing, they should just go ahead and do it.

    If the plan is a complete reconstruction of everything from the roadbed up, including new curb and gutter, wider sidewalks, bulb-outs, improved lighting, and buried utilities (similar to what they did from Gardner to Oberlin) then it will cost millions, and should be weighed in terms of priority against the other segments of Hillsborough (Gorman to Rosemary and Rosemary to Gardner.) In this case, my vote goes Rosemary-Gardner as needing the improvement first, then Oberlin-Morgan, then Gorman-Rosemary, in that order.