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Encircled by confusion Roundabout: The Towson traffic circle, almost a year old, is still bewildering to drivers and pedestrians, but has reduced major accidents at the intersection.


Round and round they go. Where they come out, nobody knows.

Almost a year after its opening, Towson's five-way circular intersection still bewilders the best drivers and confounds the bravest pedestrians.

"I hate it. I hate it," said Pat White, a customer service representative trying to return to work at Kent Fisher Furs as four cars sped by while she waited in the York Road crosswalk.

"People aren't polite. They don't stop. They have no common courtesy," she said. "Sometimes when I'm driving, I just pray that I can get over."

No matter that motorists received how-to-drive-it pamphlets or that Baltimore County police officers have directed traffic in the circle to help acclimate the clueless and the confused.

Drivers visually sweep left and right for pedestrians and cars, then slowly creep into the outer lane. Motorists brake, accelerate and then brake again as someone in the inner lane trying to turn right cuts off a driver in the outer lane. Horns honk, wheels squeal and people exchange rude hand gestures, dirty looks and foul words.

Some are timid, some more confident. Some cars crawl around the circle at 5 mph. Others race through as if it's the Indy 500.

The drama of the circle -- actually an oval -- has attracted a small group of fans.

"When it first opened up, everyone wanted to sit at the window seats and just watch," says Mary Alice "M. A." Bonner, a waitress at Souris' Saloon, which offers the best lunchtime view. "We could have sold tickets."

The roundabout has proven to be an impressive entrance into Towson's downtown business district, which boasts a Barnes & Noble Booksellers in the former Hutzler's department store building, with a promise of other businesses to follow.

Construction crews, one-lane closures and orange traffic barrels used to detour traffic have been replaced by shrubs, trees adorned with holiday lights and forest-green iron fencing. Despite rush-hour backups often stretching blocks, traffic flows better, police say.

"That was a real nasty intersection to pass through before," says Officer William F. Naff of the Police Department's traffic analysis unit. "Now, it keeps traffic flowing smoothly and it looks great."

Major accidents reduced

The roundabout, which handles more than 28,000 motorists daily, also has helped decrease the number of accidents at the intersection where Allegheny Avenue and York, Dulaney Valley and Joppa roads meet in the heart of the county seat, police statistics show.

In 1996, before the roundabout opened, 18 major accidents were reported at the intersection, with nine involving injuries. This year, five major accidents have occurred in the roundabout with one injury, police say.

While serious accidents might no longer be an issue, fender benders and heart-stopping close calls have probably multiplied.

While some might experience a Chevy Chase "European Vacation" moment as they drive endlessly around the circle, the key is simple: If you foul up, keep going around the inner lane -- yes, the circle has two lanes -- until you near your exit, then turn right. Don't use the outer lane unless you're turning quickly.

"They're used to solve problem intersections. They slow traffic down," says Stephanie Faul, communications director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Washington. "But here's the thing about any traffic control device: If drivers don't understand it, it's pointless."

'A scary thing'

Biff Scarborough, who owns B&E; Driving School in Towson, has been teaching people to drive since 1963 and could probably navigate the circle with his eyes closed, he says. But his students "are terrified."

For first-time drivers, the Baltimore Beltway is the biggest obstacle to overcome, but the circle is fast becoming a close second. Ask Beatrice d'Ossantos, 16, who tackled the circle during her final driving class with B&E.;

"It is a scary thing. You don't know who is going to cut you off or ram you," d'Ossantos said as driving instructor Liz Scarborough talked her through the confusion.

With her hands gripping the steering wheel, d'Ossantos breathed deeply and pulled the red Dodge Neon to the circle's entrance.

She made it. But later that day, Bill McLaren wasn't so lucky. A van driven by Bobby Johnson crunched the left side of McLaren's car as both men headed home. McLaren's car in the outer lane was hit by Johnson's, which was turning right from the inner lane.

"I guess we're prime examples of people who don't know how to drive the circle yet," McLaren said after exchanging insurance information. Said Johnson, shrugging, "I usually pay real close attention."

Two police officers handling the minor incident predicted that they would return to the scene four or five more times that evening for other fender benders.

All four men gave the circle high marks for moving traffic through quickly. Perhaps too quickly, say pedestrians who are supposed to have the right of way.

Pedestrian problems

"I crossed here the other day and a guy gave me the finger," says Jim Litchfield, superintendent of AR Marani Inc., the contractor renovating the old Hutzler's building. "I guess he didn't think he had to stop. They're the most ignorant drivers I've ever met."

At least Litchfield was using the crosswalks. Some pedestrians don't realize that the island of trees and shrubbery inside the circle shouldn't be used as a cut-through.

Staying alert

Baltimore resident Vanessa Alford, oblivious to "No Pedestrian" signs posted around the island inside the circle, triggered several car horns and gasps from onlookers as she stood in the LTC middle of both lanes, traffic whizzing by her.

"I was looking for Bus 55," Alford said. "The cars were coming from everywhere, every direction. You gotta be alert. You gotta look around."

And you gotta stay out of the circle, police officers warn pedestrians.

But for all the complainers, Lee Huesman, 74, of Towson says the circle's no big deal.

"It's just people making a big to-do out of nothing," she said. "It's not difficult. I can't understand it. I drive it. I walk it. I don't see the problem."

Pub Date: 12/08/98

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