An estimated 1.2 million pedestrians have crossed regional roundabouts safely over the past five years.

When Liz Esser learned that school boundary changes would force her 12-year-old daughter to cross a roundabout at Fischer-Hallman Road every day, her first reaction was fear.

She walked with her child for the first two weeks.

She joined other parents in September to plead with Kitchener council for an adult crossing guard at the roundabout at Seabrook Drive in south Kitchener.

“I am very scared every day for my daughter,” she said then.

The parents did get their crossing guard.

Rick Spurgeon helps kids — as few as two or three some mornings, sometimes as many as 15 — cross the 60 km/h road.

Spurgeon has been working at the roundabout for about a month. “I haven’t had any ‘gasp’ moments,” he says, though plenty of times drivers have had to brake abruptly for him.

Roundabouts have been on regional roads since 2004. There are more than 30 today, with plans to put in five to 10 more over the next few years.

Yet fears about how safe they are for pedestrians persist.

Bob Henderson, manager of transportation engineering for the region, believes those fears are misplaced.

An estimated 1.2 million pedestrians have crossed regional roundabouts safely over the past five years.

Very few pedestrians get hit at roundabouts, he said.

There hasn’t been a single pedestrian hit in any roundabout that’s been in for less than five years. Of those that have been around longer, the average number of pedestrians hit at regional roundabouts is about one-third lower than the number hit at traffic lights.

People place false confidence in traffic lights, where the flashing “walking man” signal tells people when it’s safe to cross, Henderson says.

He points to the outcry over the roundabout at Homer Watson Boulevard, near St. Mary’s High School, where two kids have been injured since 2011.

More kids are hit at the traffic signals near St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School in Cambridge, but those incidents spark no furor, he says.

Roundabouts require both pedestrians and drivers to decide when it’s safe to move through the intersection.

Henderson says people feel uncomfortable crossing at a roundabout because “there’s not a little walking guy making a decision for them. There’s some decision-making and judgment required.”

Roundabouts are simply designed to be safer, Henderson says.

At traffic lights there are three times more “conflict points” where pedestrians could get hit — from traffic turning left, turning right and going straight.

At a traffic signal, there are many things competing for the driver’s attention, he says. Turning vehicles are focused elsewhere than where pedestrians are going to be, he says.

Roundabouts are designed to slow vehicles down. Pedestrians typically cross only one or two lanes of traffic, and cars come from one direction, rather than multiple ones.

Henderson says pedestrian safety has been a key focus on his career as a transportation engineer.

“When it comes to pedestrian safety, we keep circling back, we keep reviewing. We keep looking at our data. All of it tells us that we’re going in the right direction in terms of enhanced safety for pedestrians.”

Jeff Casello, professor of transportation planning and engineering at the University of Waterloo, agrees with Henderson that roundabouts are safer for cars, since collisions tend to be less serious, and that roundabout designs include many safety features for pedestrians.

But, he adds, “that’s not the end of the story.”

Roundabouts create what Casello calls ” an expectation of continuous movement” — drivers expect to flow smoothly in, through and out of the roundabout. So drivers are caught by surprise when they have to stop for a pedestrian.

“You have to react to that pedestrian, but there’s no early indication that you’re going to come to a stop,” Casello says. Drivers behind the car that stops for a pedestrian can also be caught by surprise, he adds.

Roundabouts work best when they have low to medium volumes of traffic, and low speeds, Casello says.

“When you begin to have multi-lane roundabouts, particularly beyond two lanes, the volume and the speeds and the behaviour of drivers becomes problematic. There’s simply too much variance in the behaviours that are happening.”

He also says the region’s data on pedestrian collisions doesn’t give the full picture, since the data count only the very few times when pedestrians are actually struck by a car or truck and doesn’t catch near-misses.

“Safety is very much a perception,” Casello says.

“If a person feels unsafe, even if there’s never been an incident, you think, ‘I’m going to be super cautious,’ or ‘I’m going to avoid going there.’ ”

Mike Boos, of Tri-Cities Transport Action Group, agrees. “I suspect part of the reason we only hear very occasionally of people being hurt in roundabouts is that they are avoided whenever possible.”

Take the roundabout at Ira Needles Boulevard and Erb Street, used by more than 28,000 vehicles a day. That whole part of the city — with a wide, busy regional road, shopping centres with stores set well back from the road, and “acres of parking lot” — isn’t inviting to pedestrians, Casello says.

“You would see very few pedestrians because it’s really pedestrian-unfriendly. That intersection is never going to have an incident — or I should say the rate of accidents is going to be very small at that intersection, because there are very few pedestrians,” Casello says.

But roundabouts — even in areas that don’t attract a lot of pedestrians — need to be designed for pedestrians to use safely, he says.

Roundabouts should have smaller circles, so cars are forced to slow right down to make tighter turns, and should have narrower lanes as cars enter. Those physical cues that tell drivers to slow down mean drivers will have enough time to react if a pedestrian is trying to cross, he said.

The region studied roundabout speeds in 2012 and found that vehicles entering the roundabout were going an average of 24 to 33 km/h, with higher speeds at bigger roundabouts. Studies have shown that speeds above 30 km/h are far more dangerous for pedestrians.

Despite the region’s data, many people have at least an impression that vehicles are moving through the roundabouts too quickly for pedestrians to feel safe.

“Vehicles just fly through this roundabout,” Jennifer Poortinga says about the Seabrook Drive intersection when she spoke to Kitchener council. “We watch drivers repeatedly fail to stop for our children.”

Grade 7 student Cally Elyea says she doesn’t feel it’s a big deal crossing at the Seabrook roundabout, but admits, “I feel safer with the crossing guard.”

With no guard, “it wasn’t the best,” Elyea says. “Sometimes if you’re waiting to cross they just go without stopping.”

Elyea’s impression is backed up by the science (and by an informal test the Record carried out).

A 2007 study by the U.S. Transportation Research Board looked at hundreds of roundabouts in the United States and found that drivers failed to yield to pedestrians 32 per cent of the time, compared to 15 per cent at traffic lights. Cars yielded even less often on multilane roundabouts, and when leaving the roundabout.

There’s one group of pedestrians particularly vulnerable when it comes to crossing at a roundabout: People with a visual impairment.

Roundabouts require pedestrians to assess when there’s a safe gap in the traffic. something that’s much tougher for a blind person to do with no traffic signal.

Henderson agrees the blind find roundabouts challenging. He says the region consults with disabled groups and the CNIB before putting in a roundabout.

“We’ll look at their routes. We’ll consider putting in additional signals near a roundabout” so blind pedestrians can safely get where they need to go.

Over time, drivers seem to become more used to the idea of seeing pedestrians at roundabouts, says Dean McMillan, who supervises crossing guards at 85 locations in Kitchener, including at the Seabrook and Block Line roundabouts.

He says roundabouts don’t pose more of a challenge for his guards than ordinary intersections.

At the busy Block Line roundabout, “I think people in the morning and afternoon are used to seeing my crossing guards working there now,” so they’re more ready to stop for pedestrians, he said.

Henderson believes roundabouts make sense in some locations, and says regional engineers will continue to look at the data to improve roundabout designs.

“Roundabouts aren’t bulletproof, in terms of protecting pedestrians 100 per cent from the possibility of a collision. There’s no such intersection in the world that can do that,” Henderson says.

Source: The Waterloo Region Record