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Editor's Note
by Rick Markley, editor-in-chief

Are U.S. intersections contributing to firefighter injuries?

Radically changing how we control vehicle traffic could improve firefighter safety

By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

While rummaging through a used book store several years ago, I bought a book based on the cover alone. It was a great read, well written, well researched and really dug into what makes humans tick.

When I finished, I recommended it to several friends. My book shelves were full, I'd read it, "just keep it, you'll love it," I told my friends. It came back, unread. I even went as far as to slyly leave it behind at a holiday party — yes, it found its way home.

So yesterday as I read about yet another fire truck crash, this one involving a motorist who blew a red light, there sat my 'bad penny' of a book staring back at me.

"Traffic: Why we Drive the Way we do (and What It Says About Us)" was written by Tom Vanderbilt in 2008. I dusted it off and was grateful it was still hanging around my bookcase.

In the book, Vanderbilt cites four-way stoplight- or stop sign-controlled intersections as accounting for half of the vehicle crashes in the United States. He advocates the roundabout intersection, seen in many European countries, as the safer alternative.

He goes on to cite a study that converted 24 four-way intersections into roundabouts. Those intersections saw a drop of 40 percent for all crashes, 76 percent for injury crashes and 90 percent for fatal crashes.

And reducing overall crashes reduces the number of crashes involving fire trucks, ambulances and chief's buggies. That's a good thing.

It's counterintuitive to think that a free-flowing roundabout would be safer than a stoplight-controlled intersection. But as Vanderbilt points out, and my experience driving in England confirms, navigating a roundabout requires drivers to drive — in other words, pay attention to what they are doing and what's going on around them. Throw in manual transmissions and much of a driver's "free time" will be eliminated.

Going further down the path of driver behavior, Vanderbilt looked at a case study in a Danish community that switched a busy pedestrian, bicycle and auto intersection to a roundabout and removed all barriers and signs. They too found the new set up to be safer and speculated that cultural norms are stronger behavior regulators than signs. One example he used was that you never see a sign at a fast-food restaurant telling people not to cut in line. It's the same principal with motorists yielding to pedestrians and bikes — it would be interesting to see if that extended to emergency vehicles.

Would more roundabouts in the United States improve firefighter safety?

It's not a question I expect to see garner national attention or dominate the fire service dialogue. I can imagine those opposing the idea saying it treats the symptom not the cause, and that large, capital projects are slow, expensive and hyper-local.

Yet, I think there's a place for the roundabout in U.S. towns and cities. I think they would improve firefighter safety not just while en route, but because fewer vehicle crashes reduces firefighters' exposure to roadside risks.

The notion of redesigned intersections warrants discussion with local and state officials when road projects are planned — that's the time to get involved.

Like the European fire helmet I wear, a European intersection may look odd, but brings added safety. It certainly warrants more discussion among fire service leaders. So please, tell me what you think.

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Dave Howe Dave Howe Wednesday, August 27, 2014 1:59:59 PM We here in Bend, OR, have a couple dozen roundabouts, and they work really well, unless they get overloaded, either by too high a volume of traffic or by a blockage feeding one leg. Empirically I believe that we have had less intersection crashes, and once the general population overcomes its fear of something unfamiliar, traffic generally flows a lot more evenly. Design is important, and the City has learned from experience how to build them better. They can be expensive, but one nasty crash with injuries and a fatality can cost dang near as much.
Blake Mayo Blake Mayo Wednesday, August 27, 2014 2:39:16 PM I have been in Europe and even the Arc De Triomph in Paris France, in heavy traffic and a vehicle fire and the fire brigade on scene. traffic move around the traffic circle easily. To many non American visitors that drive here. the idea of a 4 way stop is mind blowing. However in London I have seen round about's that have traffic lights to control the flow entering the circle.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014 2:47:05 PM The only one I have had experience with was years ago in Lubbock, TX It was a nightmare. We were there on crashes 3 -4 times a shift. TXDOT finally removed it years later. Having been to England and Germany in the Air Force, and driven in both countries, there is as much difference between drivers in Europe and the US, as night and day. US drivers are only concerned with getting where they are going. It doesn't matter if it is a crash or an emergency vehicle responding. How dare they impede me getting where I am going. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. Drivers in Europe however, are more attentive and courteous to other drivers, and their surroundings. Even on the Autobahn, when they approach a crash scene, they slow down and yield to the workers on scene. I'm not so optimistic about it working too well in many areas of this country.
Lawrence Hiles Lawrence Hiles Sunday, August 31, 2014 8:36:21 PM I think round-abouts are great. Hopefully people will learn how to use them soon. Two important things to remember with the round-about, look at the signs prior to entering to see how the lanes are intended to be used, and the vehicle to the left has the right-of-way. It also helps for people to use their signal to indicate their exit. We need more of them so get used to it.

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