JEFFERSONVILLE — Charlestown resident Tim Stoner is familiar with Clark County's new roundabouts, but he wouldn't call himself a friend of them.
Stoner drives the Indiana 265/Indiana 62/Port Road interchange almost daily for work in New Albany. His thoughts on the roundabouts haven't really changed much in the last year.
"I just think it's unorganized because nobody knows what's going on," he said.
Stoner isn't the only one who feels that way.
The roundabouts have attracted a hefty dose of opposition since they opened as part of the Ohio River Bridges Project. The confusion and unfamiliarity with the circular intersection caused congestion and sparked a public outcry.
But it's also caused concerns about safety.
"Every day, I see somebody that doesn't know exactly what they're doing," said Stoner, who's almost been hit "numerous times."
NUMBER OF ACCIDENTS
Between the interchange's opening last September to May, law enforcement officers responded to 134 accidents.
"For a [nine-month] period, that seems to be quite a few accidents," said Larry Chaney, director of transportation for the Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Development Agency.
However, only nine accidents, or 6.7 percent, resulted in injuries. One involved an overturned truck. Although not included in this data set, one semi-truck overturned on the interchange just Thursday. None of the accidents resulted in fatalities.
"For an intersection, that's probably kind of a low percentage, which means there's something else going on at that roundabout," Chaney said.
Seven of the accidents resulting in injury were caused by following too closely. The No. 1 reason for accidents was failure to yield right-of-way, at 45. The second-most common cause was unsafe or improper lane usage at 30. Following too closely resulted in 22 accidents.
"Those are the top type of crashes that we see in work zones," Indiana Department of Transportation spokesman Will Wingfield said. Which makes sense, as the roundabouts are still under construction.
The interchange by far sees the most traffic of any intersection in Jeffersonville, and because there are two roundabouts, it counts for two intersections. KIPDA hasn't begun counting traffic volumes on the interchange yet.
Chaney warned comparing roundabout accident numbers to those of other city four-way intersections isn't exactly apples to apples. Rather, it's more like "fruits to vegetables," he said.
For the same time period, the 10th Street and Holman Lane/Allison Lane intersection saw 29 accidents. Two, or 6.9 percent, resulted in injuries. The 10th Street and Spring Street intersection experienced 52 accidents and seven, or 13.5 percent, resulted in injuries.
When it first announced the building of the roundabouts, INDOT boasted national figures that show roundabouts are safer, more efficient and greener.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, roundabouts compared to four-way intersections increase traffic capacity by 20 to 50 percent and decrease traffic delays by 20 percent, thus saving fuel use and reducing pollution. And roundabouts are proven to decrease fatalities by 90 percent and all crashes by 35 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Accident numbers in its first year of operation may not reflect the true safety of the traffic configuration.
In fact, INDOT excludes data from the first three to 12 months of operations in follow-up monitoring because "it should be expected that motorists are adjusting to the new intersection during this time frame."
The interchange is still under construction, with some lane closures as crews continue median work, until the end of the year.
"Looking at it statewide, we see when work zones end — when everything's open, you've got all the shoulders available to you, there's no periodic lane closures, no distractions — yeah, crashes go down," Wingfield said.
"And likewise, as drivers become more familiar with a new pattern, crashes go down," he said.
Opening of the east-end bridge will also redistribute traffic on the interchange, Wingfield said. People who live in Louisville and work at River Ridge Commerce Center, for example, will no longer need to take Indiana 62 to get to work.
"So traffic's going to be using different ways to get to their destination, and ultimately, this area was designed for those traffic volumes once the construction is completed," he said.
Still, INDOT is working to improve the safety of the roundabouts. The agency plans to install larger yield signs and tweak other signs and pavement markings to address the most common accident causes.
Harrison County resident Kitty Byerly, who works at River Ridge, pretty much has the hang of the roundabouts now.
"I'm very conscious when I'm on it because I figure every day is somebody else's first day," Byerly said.
She's warmed up to them now, only because she's more familiar with them. But she still doesn't like roundabouts.
"I think it just leaves too many open questions for everybody involved," Byerly said.
Although roundabouts are new to this area, they certainly aren't new to Indiana. Carmel has more roundabouts — 94, to be exact — than any other city in the United States. In those places, roundabouts aren't just tolerated but well-liked.
Valparaiso got its first roundabout in 2007, initiated by Mayor Jon Costas. Now, the northwestern Indiana community has six roundabouts with four more on the way.
"Really, the only negative is people learning how to use them," Costas said. "It is more involved, and people are unfamiliar with them when they're not around them that much. But they're working great for us."
The Valparaiso mayor's biggest piece of advice to roundabout drivers: Go slow.
"If everybody goes slow, it never stops, and it goes really well," he said. "Sometimes people like to zip through them, and it throws off the whole rhythm."
Costas has a whole list of reasons why he's a big fan of roundabouts. Among them are improved safety and efficiency. The city has seen a reduction in wait times from 42 seconds to 6 seconds and reductions in accidents and their severity.
"We don't deny the fact that roundabouts still have accidents," Valparaiso City Engineer Tim Burkman said. "But they are the fender-bender types and that's because of the geometry of it. Everybody's moving the same circular direction — you don't have the head-on, right-angle collisions you have if somebody blows a red light."
Jeffersonville's roundabouts experienced 61 same-direction sideswipes, 30 rear-end crashes and 24 right-angle collisions.
If Southern Indiana follows Valparaiso, and with enough public education, the region could come to welcome the new traffic configuration, Costas and Burkman suggest.
"I think the public perception is in keeping with what I hear as far as a national trend when they're new to a community," Burkman said of Valparaiso. "And that is there's initial fear ... and then that moves to general acceptance and now it moves to, 'Where's the next one going to be?'"