KEYSTONE — Long established in Europe, roundabouts seem as foreign to American motorists as teatime. They haven't exactly embraced these traffic circles, though it appears drivers will have to come around — even in Hillsborough County.
Traffic engineers who love roundabouts and tout their safety record are using them more and more to replace clogged and dangerous intersections.
A roundabout that replaced the hazardous junction of Race Track and Boy Scout roads in northwest Hillsborough opened this month, and three big, double-lane traffic circles on 40th Street in Tampa are expected to be finished in March.
Tom Faucette said he'll reserve judgment on the new Race Track Road roundabout until the day he decides to take his boat out. He's not sure he can maneuver the boat trailer around the circle.
"It just looks kind of small,'' he said.
Clifford May, another resident of the neighborhood north of the intersection, had the same concern. He said he and about six other motorists recently were backed up behind a tractor-trailer as the rig tried to make it through the circle.
"The bottom line is it looks like they made that thing as small as they possibly could,'' May said.
But the roundabout meets all the standards, said Steve Valdez, spokesman for Hillsborough County. "I saw the largest of semis go through there; I was out there myself.''
What people don't understand, he said, is that it is okay for truck tires to drive over the wide apron of red pavement at the edge of the roundabout when rigs are making their way out of the circle. That's the whole reason for the red pavement.
It's natural for Hillsborough County drivers to be wary at first because they encounter so few roundabouts, Valdez said, mentioning the circle on Old Memorial Highway and Montague Street in the Westchase area, and another under construction at Wheeler and Highview roads in Seffner.
In the city of Tampa, new circles on 40th Street — at Yukon Street, Hanna Avenue and Riverhills Drive — could prove especially daunting because of the two traffic lanes.
"We're hopeful that it will be a short learning curve,'' said Jean Dorzback, the city's transportation manager. To educate drivers, the city posted on its website an instructional video on driving roundabouts produced by the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The Tampa Bay area's most controversial roundabout so far was the two-lane circle at the entrance to Clearwater Beach. When it opened in 1999, fender benders proliferated as motorists changed lanes without warning, trying to make it to their exits. A towering fountain in the center obstructed drivers' view of the other side. Once that was shut down and other improvements made, the furor subsided.
"There isn't any doubt there needs to be more education,'' said Eugene R. Russell Sr., chairman of the task force on roundabouts for the national Transportation Research Board.
Roundabouts improve traffic flow by cutting down stopping, delays and backups, said Russell, a professor emeritus of civil engineering at Kansas State University. But that's only if people follow traffic laws, he noted, mentioning a growing realization among traffic engineers that many drivers these days ignore yield signs.
"A lot of us think drivers are losing respect for the yield sign, or don't understand what it means," he said.
Russell favors roundabouts because they tend to forgive motorists' errant ways. Though more than 2,000 traffic circles exist around the country, only 12 people in the past 15 years have died in traffic accidents in them, he said.
That's because the crashes tend to be low-speed rear-angle or rear-end collisions. The two-lane roundabouts are a bigger problem because motorists sometimes change lanes without signaling.
Roundabouts need to be landscaped in order to make approaching drivers aware of their presence, Russell believes, but he's against solid structures in the center.
"You do occasionally get the nut that will bounce into the center — no sense in having a wall there to kill him,'' he said.
Valdez said the county had to do something about the intersection at Race Track and Boy Scout roads, which had become a busy spot with the rise of suburbia and the scene of a number of severe accidents. "It was fine when it was a little country road for decades.''
Despite their qualms about the Race Track roundabout's ability to move truck traffic, people who use it do believe the intersection is now much safer.
The angle of Race Track Road limited motorists' sight, but that wasn't the only problem. Faucette, the concerned boat owner, explained that the intersection with Boy Scout could be confusing. Sometimes drivers didn't realize that oncoming traffic on Race Track had the right-of-way.
"I saw one of my friends go straight through there,'' he said, "and a car almost hit him.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or [email protected]