WALLA WALLA -- Walla Wallans enjoy trying new things. When a new restaurant opens it's busy -- really busy -- for weeks, even months.
Heck, when a section of road is repaved (a rarity to be sure), I've seen folks driving it just to get a look -- or, perhaps, simply to experience a drive in which potholes and ruts won't knock out teeth.
So, when the roundabout was opened at Pine Street and Myra Road off U.S. Highway 12 I expected it would be a whirl of activity. It was something new to see and experience.
Yet, I've heard over and over again that people avoid the roundabout.
What's up with that? Aren't these roundabouts the latest craze? Aren't they popping up in the Tri-Cities like the mushrooms on our lawns this spring?
Yes, roundabouts are the hot thing in the Tri-Cities. And that is apparently the problem. When Walla Wallans travel to Costco off Gage Boulevard many have encountered one or two roundabouts. Their experiences have been less than pleasant. Over and over I've heard of cars in the left lane cutting off the car to the right in a panicked effort to exit. Frankly, I've had it happen to me twice.
If it's so dangerous, why the roundabout off Myra Road?
Well, it's not just one roundabout off Myra Road -- it's soon going to be three roundabouts. A traffic trifecta!
When the new section of U.S. Highway 12 running from Myra Road to Lowden fully opens the current roundabout will connect to a double roundabout, also known as a "dogbone" because that's what it looks like from above.
Department of Transportation engineers opted for this triple-roundabout configuration because they determined it would be more efficient over time.
Kerry Grant, a DOT design project engineer out of the Yakima office, said the first idea for the new intersection was to put up traffic signals. But, he said, those signals would have to be so close together they would create gridlock conditions within 20 years as the traffic increases.
Another option was to close Pine Street or to space everything out.
"There were no good options" beyond roundabouts, Grant said. "It would have messed things up" and rerouted access to the motel and restaurant off the highway.
Since everything pointed to roundabouts within the next 20 years, officials opted to put them in place now. Traffic will be lighter in 2010 than it will be in 2025.
"The advantage of doing it now instead of 15 years from now is the traffic is less and people can get used to doing it," Grant said. "It's easier (for drivers to get used to roundabouts) now than later."
Still, DOT officials understand, even expect, local motorists to be apprehensive. A few might even, well, freak out.
"We always have that learning curve," said Meagan McFadden, DOT spokeswoman based in Yakima. She said there were a few rear-end collisions and fender benders in the Tri-Cities when the roundabouts opened there.
"People are always afraid of new things," she said. "We are trying to get people (in Walla Walla) more aware of roundabouts. We hope that with proper signage" traffic problems can be avoided.
Figuring out exactly how to drive roundabouts -- let alone "dogbones" -- is not necessarily simple. This is why the DOT has a detailed explanation and a series of videos on its website explaining in detail how to navigate them. The information can be found at wsdot.wa.gov/safety/roundabouts/.
Grant said the trickiest issue drivers will face in roundabouts is when to exit. Drivers need to pay attention and follow the design (as well as the signs).
Today's roundabouts, as opposed to the traffic circles made famous (or is that infamous?) in Europe, are designed so the car in the right lane will exit when it needs to exit, Grant said. Cars needing to exit at the next opening will be moved to the right lane, he said.
Sounds simple enough, right? We will see.
But the good news is that the top speed in a roundabout is about 25 mph.
"They are low-speed accidents," Grant said of what occurs in roundabouts. "They are a lot safer than intersections."
Rick Eskil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-526-8309. If you, too, wonder what's up with that, let Eskil know about it and maybe he can find out.