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Straight talk for roundabout dummies

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sometimes going through an intersection is a lot like trying to drive a square peg through a round hole.

Make that a roundabout.

From the one that’s been at West Central and Eighth since 2006, to the two new ones on Las Estancias SW near Coors, all the roundabouts in the Albuquerque area have tire marks on the aprons, showing that at least some drivers have had a tough time rounding a circle.

And although there’s no lasting evidence that the roundabouts cause delays – something they are specifically designed to decrease while simultaneously slowing traffic and eliminating accidents or reducing the severity of them – the anecdotes are plenty.

Last month, a visitor to the Journal editorial board opened and closed a meeting with some opining on roundabout abuse – a topic other than the one she came in to discuss. She said she routinely gets stuck behind vehicles that don’t enter the roundabout when the path is clear, or behind vehicles that stop in the roundabout to inappropriately yield to entering traffic.

And that is counter to the point of a roundabout, which is to eliminate red signals and red octagons and keep traffic moving – more slowly, granted – but moving nonetheless.

It’s reminiscent of a Road Warrior column I did last year, when a reader emailed that he would spend part of his lunch hour watching drivers torture one another through the then-new roundabout on the University of New Mexico north campus. “Motorists drive around in the wrong direction and even make U-turns in the circle,” he said. “More than one person just gave up and drove through the center of it.”

So let’s start off the new year with a primer on how to go round a roundabout, because in the Albuquerque area the city has built two (and has two more proposed), Bernalillo County has two, there are two on the University of New Mexico campus, 10 in Rio Rancho and one on a state road.

And that’s not counting the ones constructed by developers on private land – installed to slow traffic through and reduce wrecks in shopping centers and developments – or the many mini-versions that are designed more to calm traffic than guide it through an intersection. Of those, the city says it has at least 17; the county has 19.

A great local how-to-roundabout lesson comes courtesy of County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley. Back in 2012 when she was on the City Council, she had a video explaining “Navigating the Modern Roundabout” made and posted on YouTube. (The video is embedded at the top of this story.)

Her assistant, Kelly Sanchez, says that when O’Malley “started working with the neighborhoods on the Rio Grande Corridor Plan, people were talking about wanting roundabouts. Debbie’s biggest concern was that people didn’t know how a roundabout worked. She thought it would be a good idea to put together an information piece that would be easy to understand. She also thought it would be a good tool for the students at Valley High School.”

It would be even better if drivers watched it. Unfortunately, there have been a little more than 1,000 views and zero comments posted to the video.

Narrated by an Albuquerque Police Department commander, the 6-plus-minute video (put together in-house by GovTV at “no cost”) shows the proper movement of vehicle and bicycle traffic through several Albuquerque roundabouts.

The short version on rules is this: Entering traffic yields to traffic that’s already in the circle (and if there isn’t any in the circle you don’t have to yield), and once in the circle, all traffic keeps to the right and travels counterclockwise.

The county and Rio Rancho also have roundabout videos posted, and even the show “Mythbusters” has taken on the challenge, comparing a four-way stop with a roundabout. (The roundabout wins in volume of traffic moved and potential accidents avoided.)

But there’s no question there’s a learning curve.

It would help if the state Driver’s License Manual got a much needed update to include some specific roundabout instructions. Right now, Page 12 just has “when you drive around a ‘traffic circle’ you must drive on the right side of the island.”

David Mitchell, director of Bernalillo County’s Operations and Maintenance, says “the hard part for Albuquerqueans seems to be the rule that the (drivers on the) through (i.e. incoming) lanes are supposed to yield to those in the circle. Yield signs are there. Where there is low traffic, people just get used to driving right through without checking the odd driver going around to make a turn.”

In that previous column, Mitchell pointed out that although a new business park on Coors just south of Rio Bravo includes “two new multilane public roundabouts, nonetheless the developer wisely decided to paint out the outer lane of the roundabouts for the side streets so the main road has two lanes through the circulator, but the roundabout effectively functions as left-turn bays for the side roads. You sometimes have to crawl before you walk.”

And especially before you drive around.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to assistant editorial page editor D’Val Westphal at 823-3858 or road@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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