After more than a year of construction, detours, and traffic delays, the new roundabout at the intersection of Routes 250 West and 151 South is finally open. Many are pleased with the result. This roundabout is larger than usual and keeps traffic flowing. The long waits to cross Afton Mountain or to turn onto or off of Rt. 151 are a thing of the past.
But roundabouts are only as safe as the drivers who use them. Following these rules for navigating roundabouts from the Virginia Department of Transportation will protect everyone’s safety, including your own.
Slow down as you approach the roundabout. The Rt 250/151 roundabout specifies 20 mph as a safe speed to enter.
If there are already cars in the roundabout, stop and let them proceed until a safe opening occurs.
You must yield to traffic already in the roundabout. Traffic on your left has the right of way.
Assume the other drivers will not use their turn signals, so a car may pass in front of you rather than exiting at your entrance point.
Enter the roundabout only behind other cars—not in front of them—and proceed counter clockwise.
Signal your intended exit prior to leaving the roundabout. This helps other drivers know when they can enter safely.
The important thing to remember is that cars already in the roundabout when you arrive have the right of way. You should never enter the roundabout in front of an oncoming car. They may plan to drive past your entrance point to exit later. This is why you should stop and wait to enter the roundabout until you are sure they don’t plan to pass in front of you.
Studies of intersections in the United States converted from traffic signals or stop signs to roundabouts have found reductions in injury crashes of 72-80% and reductions in all crashes of 35-47%. But at least one local resident has concerns about the safety features of this roundabout. Raymond Glass, a retired truck driver from Afton, drove for Crete Carriers for 48 years, and travelled over 5 million miles—all over the U.S. and Canada. “I was a professional tourist,” he joked. “Roundabouts keep the flow of traffic good, but sometimes the road is not wide enough for trucks. This roundabout is larger than normal, but not large enough. It is working well for cars, but not accommodating for trucks. Most long-distance truckers turn down 151, which meets 29 South near Amherst. This saves time, fuel, and mileage—it can shave 30 minutes off your trip. A stop light is safer, because it is easier to maneuver around stopped traffic. Turning is harder with the traffic always moving.”
“The wheels on a tandem truck can be slid forward or backward to adjust the weight,” Glass explained. “But when it is slid all the way back, the truck doesn’t turn as sharp and you have to go up on the middle curb. This can shift the weight and cause the truck to turn over. Or it might bend your rim and blow a tire.” Our roundabout has a raised central island, surrounded by a wide apron—a slightly raised section of concrete—that acts as an extra lane for large vehicles. According to one transportation department website, “The back wheels of the oversized vehicle can ride up on the truck apron so the truck can easily complete the turn, while the raised portion of concrete discourages use by smaller vehicles.”
But Glass disagreed. “If the truck is going too fast, even riding up on the apron can cause these kinds of accidents,” he continued. “The apron helps, but not as much as a wider lane would. Most drivers know how to handle this problem, but newer drivers don’t.”
According to Dave Stevens of Curtis Construction, which is contracted with VDOT to complete the roundabout, a runaway truck ramp is planned to be built by the end of this year. It will be on the right side as you come down the mountain, 1500 feet—or about 1/3 mile—west of the intersection. “The construction timing will depend on acquisition of the necessary right of way, but will likely be this coming summer,” explained Lou Hatter, communications manager for the Virginia Dept. of Transportation (VDOT)’s Culpeper District.
Glass was pleased to hear this news. “An escape ramp is definitely needed in case trucks come down the mountain too fast. A non-seasoned driver might ride their brakes coming down, and once the brakes get hot, when you get to the bottom you don’t have any. Big trucks don’t always have enough brakes to stop 80,000 lbs. of load. This might also be needed in bad weather, when it gets icy.”
Hatter also confirmed that “signs advising of the roundabout will be installed in the near future on all three approaches to the intersection. They will also have a rectangular yellow 20 mph advisory speed sign below the roundabout image.” Glass would also like to see permanent signage at the top of the mountain “warning truckers that there is a roundabout at the bottom, so they can plan ahead and save their brakes. This descent is pretty short, so the roundabout comes up fast.”
Glass recommended defensive driving. “Always leave an out, is my motto.” Good advice for navigating our newest traffic management tool which, weighing everything in the balance, is safe if used correctly. “The biggest problem is people not using their turn signals,” cautioned Stevens.