Traffic Circle Has Drivers in a Spin
Some Motorists Avoid the Area

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

How do you get around a roundabout? For some drivers in Southern Maryland, that has suddenly become a pressing question.

Some motorists are so confounded by a new roundabout at a rural crossroads in St. Mary's County that they cut through nearby parking lots to avoid it. One driver recently tackled the circle in the wrong direction.

Clerks in a liquor store on the edge of the circle entertain themselves on sleepy afternoons by watching motorists confront the new traffic challenge. "If you just watch, someone will do something," said Melissa Mattingly, who works behind the counter at Village Liquors.

Across the street at Chaptico Market and Deli, Virginia Tennyson said some of her elderly customers are so concerned about the circle that they have ended weekly visits to her store.

"Change is scary," said Tennyson, who has owned the market with her husband, Jackie, for more than four decades.

The $3.5 million circle, at the intersection of routes 234 and 238, is the first of its kind in St. Mary's County and the fourth in Southern Maryland.

Unlike the flashing lights and stop signs it replaced, the roundabout slows traffic without stopping it and is intended to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities at an intersection that was once considered dangerous, said Mark Britschge, the State Highway Administration project manager.

Britschge said there have been no serious accidents since the circle was opened to traffic this summer. "Seems to be working perfect," he said.

Maryland built its first roundabout in 1993 in Howard County and now has more than 30, including one in Calvert County and two in Charles County at the Hughesville bypass.

There has not been a fatal accident at any of the state's circles, and roundabouts have drastically reduced the number of accidents, said Kellie Boulware, State Highway Administration spokeswoman.

But for drivers who don't round Dupont Circle every morning, the traffic pattern can be confusing.

On Tuesday afternoon, a navy Cadillac slowed as it approached the circle. Suddenly a gray Oldsmobile appeared from the east. Both cars slammed on their brakes, each driver attempting to yield to the other.

The Caddy driver waved on the Oldsmobile; the Olds waved on the Caddy. Each inched forward, simultaneously, then slammed on the brakes again. A pickup truck pulled up behind the Cadillac, its driver leaning on the horn, bringing an end to the polite standoff.

The highway administration's Web site explains in detail how to negotiate a roundabout. Traffic always flows counterclockwise, and cars in the circle have the right-of-way. Drivers must wait for an opening before entering the circle. All vehicles exit right as the desired streets are reached.

Because of the newness of roundabouts in rural areas, the State Highway Administration is showing videos about how the circle works at community events and posting plenty of signs before and at the circle. The agency's Web site features an animated graphic that shows fuchsia cars, orange buses and colorfully dressed bicyclists navigating a pastel roundabout.

"Once they have an opportunity to use it, they see that it's really not that bad," Boulware said. "They're just new."

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