In a roundabout way, Mount Pleasant has been chipping away at its traffic problems for more than a decade by funneling drivers into circles built at major intersections.

Rifle Range Road has three traffic loops, including the one at Bowman Road, which is considered the first modern traffic circle in the state, said Brad Morrison, director of the town Transportation Department.

"It was a huge success. They've been very successful here, and I'm sure we'll build more," he said.

That is already happening with plans for the biggest traffic loop in town at the intersection of Coleman, Ben Sawyer and Chuck Dawley boulevards. Unlike the other roundabouts in town, there are many businesses clustered at the junction of the three roads. And the new loop would be two lanes instead of just one.

"I think it would be great. Hardly a day goes by that there's not a wreck out there somewhere,' said John Royall, owner of Royall Ace Hardware, which is located at the intersection.

Royall served on the Coleman Boulevard Revitalization Advisory Board that suggested the idea of a traffic circle where the three boulevards meet to improve traffic flow and make the intersection safer.

In a roundabout, drivers merge onto a one-way loop around a landscaped circle that feeds traffic to connecting roads. They are being built here and across the country because they have been shown to move traffic better and increase safety compared with traditional intersections with stoplights. They eliminate left turns, a major source of accidents, and rear-end collisions caused by drivers stopping suddenly at yellow lights, according to traffic experts.

While Mount Pleasant has pioneered use of roundabouts here, they are being advocated as a possible solution to S.C. Highway 61 traffic problems.

A nice alternative

Mathis Ferry Road has two traffic circles, and a third one is planned near the south end of the road as a condition of Town Council approval for a large apartment complex. Nearby residents expressed concerns to council about traffic congestion because of the new housing.

Another new traffic circle is in the works for the intersection of Long Point Road and Needlerush Parkway. Residents complained about the "suicide" left turn onto the road and the constant traffic backups. The parkway is how 200,000 visitors annually get to Palmetto Islands County Park. And hundreds of homeowners live beside it.

Elsewhere, enthusiasm for building traffic circles has spread to West Ashley.

"I think they are a really nice alternative to traffic lights," said Wes Walker, who promotes solutions to S.C. Highway 61 traffic at www.fix61.com.

At his new website, Walker floated the idea of Highway 61 traffic circles because he used to live in Mount Pleasant and saw how the loops reduced congestion there.

In particular, he has noticed how traffic circles improved the vehicle flow at intersections on Rifle Range Road.

"You used to sit in traffic all day long," he said.

Town Council recently voted to support the Chuck Dawley, Coleman and Ben Sawyer boulevards roundabout, which sets in motion a process that will include design work, an environmental study and public hearings. The Planning Commission will consider the project and make a recommendation to the council.

About 1,500 roundabouts have been built in the United States, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, with the first one constructed in Nevada in 1990. They are more common in France, the United Kingdom and Australia, the institute said.

Safety features

Several features of roundabouts promote safety. At traditional intersections with stop signs or traffic signals, some of the most common types of crashes are right-angle, left-turn and head-on collisions. These types of collisions can be severe because vehicles might be traveling through the intersection at high speeds.

With roundabouts, according to the institute, these types of potentially serious crashes essentially are eliminated because vehicles travel in the same direction.

Installing roundabouts in place of traffic signals also can reduce the likelihood of rear-end crashes and their severity by removing the incentive for drivers to speed up as they approach green lights and by reducing abrupt stops at red lights.

An institute study of 23 crossroads in the United States reported that converting intersections from traffic signals or stop signs to roundabouts reduced crashes with injury by 80 percent and all crashes by 40 percent.

"Mistakes at roundabouts result in fender-benders. Mistakes at stop signs and traffic signals can be catastrophic," said Robert Retting of the institute, an author of the study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Retting said traffic signals cost about $150,000 at major intersections, while roundabouts cost between $50,000 and $400,000.

Mount Pleasant also is in the midst of a massive project to widen about six miles of Johnnie Dodds Boulevard and U.S. Highway 17 from four lanes to six lanes from the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge to Darrell Creek Trail. Roundabouts are not included in that project, but Mount Pleasant's first overpass is being constructed to take Johnnie Dodds traffic over Bowman Road instead of having traffic lights at the intersection. The widening project is expected to be finished in about a year.