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Experts assess busy Oakland County roundabouts

June 24, 2009

KALAMAZOO--Researchers from Western Michigan University have been hired to conduct a study of recently built roundabouts in Oakland County, one of which has been challenged in court as being inaccessible to pedestrians with visual impairments.

The researchers, who since 2000 have done similar studies of blind pedestrians' access to complex intersections in other states, will conduct the study with help from colleagues at North Carolina State University. The first phase of their investigation began Tuesday, June 23, and continues until Wednesday, July 1, at a roundabout installed at Maple and Drake roads. Early in 2010 the team will shift their research to an adjacent intersection at Maple and Farmington. Both intersections are in West Bloomfield, Mich.

"Roundabouts can be very challenging for people who are blind and may pose dangers for other pedestrians as well," says Dr. Richard Long, WMU professor of blindness and low vision studies and associate dean of the WMU College of Health and Human Services.

"They're challenging because the traffic is not controlled by traffic lights and the traffic often fails to stop for pedestrians," Long says. "Pedestrians themselves have to identify when it is appropriate to cross. It's a task that is rather challenging without vision. Especially when it's a multi-lane roundabout, it's challenging to the point where you sometimes need some type of intervention."

The Oakland County roundabouts are good examples. Maple Road is a major east-west thoroughfare with high traffic volume. Installing a multi-lane roundabout at Drake Road was intended to increase safety for motorists, but its design prompted a visually impaired resident to challenge its accessibility. The Road Commission for Oakland County hired the WMU-led team to conduct a three-phase evaluation at the roundabout, as well as a second roundabout at Maple and Farmington roads.

Long and his colleagues have assembled a group of people who are blind and willing to participate in the study. A pretest phase will analyze both their behavior and that of motorists as they attempt to cross the two roundabouts. An orientation and mobility specialist will always be present to intervene, if necessary, to ensure the safety of study participants.

After accessibility and safety at the two circles have been studied, the road commission will install two different safety beacon systems, one at each roundabout. The WMU team then will return to study the roundabouts and assess whether the systems result in a reduction of interventions from orientation and mobility specialists as participants attempt to cross and whether participants are able to cross within a reasonable amount of time. Other measures of risk also are used to determine the effect of the planned interventions. A third study phase similar to the second phase will be conducted 90 days later.

The study team also will assess traffic flows, vehicle operation and accidents both before and after the two beacon systems are installed, taking a close look at delays and traffic queues. Video cameras will capture cycling of the beacon systems, allowing researchers to analyze driver compliance with various beacon phases. All told, the project will run through June 30, 2011.

Long has become very accustomed to assessing complex intersections and their accessibility to pedestrians, especially those with vision problems.

Since 2000, the National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded a research project headed by Long close to $9 million to study various approaches designed to ensure that complex intersections are accessible for people who are blind or visually impaired. Such accessibility is mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Long and his colleagues have studied a number of intersections in Colorado, Florida and other states.

"People tend to think we're anti-roundabout," Long says. "We're not. Roundabouts have a number of safety benefits and save lives. They're good things. The challenge is to make them safe for all to use."

As traffic intersections become more complex, similar problems will be encountered on an increasing basis, Long says. Traffic circles are extremely popular in Europe, but their presence hasn't generated a lot of controversy because people with vision problems overseas are not as likely to attempt to travel as they are in the United States. But that's changing, and roundabouts are rapidly growing in popularity in America.

"This has great implications both nationwide and worldwide," Long says.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8428, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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