30-year-old man killed in first fatal roundabout collision in Kitchener sparks questions about intersection’s safety

KITCHENER — Jason Gatto works right beside the roundabout at Manitou Drive and Bleams Road, passing through the intersection as a passenger twice a day to get to Gerrie Electric Supply.

While Gatto thinks the circular intersections are great to maintain the flow of traffic, he regularly sees problems with people navigating the intersection.

“Some people just don’t pay attention to what they’re doing, walking across the road with a phone in their hand,” he said.

“When we were kids, we were taught: make sure you got eye contact with that person, they ain’t going to hit you. People will just walk out into the middle of the street (and) you see people slamming on their brakes.”

Gatto was surprised to hear that a collision in the roundabout killed a 30-year-old man in mid-December.

Siddharth Rupapara was hit while crossing on Dec. 14 at around 5:15 pm Rupapara had just graduated from Conestoga College in spring 2022. His death was the first fatality at a local roundabout.

On Thursday morning, flowers and battery-powered tealight candles were clustered around a nearby “Stop For Pedestrians” sign.

The incident renewed questions around safety that have been asked since roundabouts first appeared in the region within the past 20 years.

Roundabouts are still the safest type of intersection to move large amounts of traffic, said Steve van De Keere, director of transportation services with the Region of Waterloo.

The fear that some feel when driving, biking or walking through a roundabout keeps people vigilant.

“At signals, drivers see a green light, they think it’s safe to go. Pedestrians see the walk symbol, they think it’s safe to go. Many times, those users don’t check to see if someone’s coming the other way or not, because they rely on the signal for their safety,” said van De Keere.

The geometry of the roundabout also helps reduce speeds in the roundabout, giving drivers more time to correct mistakes than at traffic lights.

“Let’s say you didn’t see a car, you didn’t see a pedestrian, and you’re traveling very fast. There’s no time to see what’s going to happen and how to make an evasive maneuver,” said van De Keere.

The number of roundabouts in the region is constantly growing, with roughly one or two roundabouts approved each year.

The questions of roundabout safety has been a long-standing one for residents. Some see the benefit of improved traffic flow, others say they’re scary for drivers and pedestrians to navigate.

The end of 2022 saw a corridor of collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists at roundabouts.

Pedestrian collisions in roundabouts resulted in one death and injured three other people, two of them seriously.

Eight collisions at roundabouts involved cyclists. One collision resulted in major injuries; the other seven resulted in minor injuries.

Two other collisions at roundabouts happened a little over two weeks from the fatal collision at Manitou Drive and Bleams Road.

On Dec 9 at around 5:40 pm and just five days before Rupapara was killed, 72-year-old Siamak Samimi was seriously injured while crossing at the Ira Needles Boulevard and Erb Street West roundabout in Waterloo.

Samimi ended up in hospital with a fractured shoulder, pelvis and facial bones, and injury to his right leg.

On Nov. 28 at around 5:30 pm, a Kitchener man riding a bike at the Ottawa Street South and Homer Watson Boulevard roundabout was hit by a car and seriously injured.

Police charged the 52-year-old cyclist with riding a bicycle in a crosswalk, no light on bicycle, and no horn on bicycle.

Van De Keere attributes the cluster of incidents to the unpredictability of collisions.

There are about 6,000 collisions on regional roads every year. About 1,500 of those incidents involve injuries, averaging at about three injuries from collisions per day.

“Collisions are random events. You can get a cluster of them within a few weeks and you can go for weeks and weeks without any serious collision,” said Van De Keere.

There are at least 70 roundabouts in this region, including 37 high-volume roundabouts on busy regional roads and other lower-traffic circles on quieter residential streets.

Regional government opened its first high-volume roundabouts late in 2004, which means the busiest traffic circles operated for almost 18 years before reporting a death.

This excludes two fatalities at or near roundabouts that were deemed unrelated to the operation of the circles.

In 2013 a man working in a trench beside a Kitchener roundabout was killed when a minivan driver lost control inside the slushy traffic circle. To avoid hitting another vehicle in the roundabout, the minivan drove up onto a pile of dirt and plunged nose-first into the trench, pinning the worker. Police ruled out the roundabout as a factor.

In 2014 a motorcyclist lost control on a wet road about 90 meters outside a Kitchener roundabout. The motorcycle slid into a roundabout center island where the driver was found. He was declared dead in hospital. Police blamed speed and poor road conditions.

Collision records for busy regional roads do not point to 37 high-volume roundabouts as a particular safety threat to pedestrians or cyclists.

Traffic planners reported to regional council in September that “the region’s roundabouts generally continue to perform with low amounts of serious injuries, pedestrian and cyclist collisions.”

Over the years, injuries from roundabout collisions have ranged from pedestrians and cyclists being seriously hurt to no physical injuries.

In 2021, one pedestrian collision at a roundabout resulted in major injuries.

Four other collisions involved cyclists: three resulted in minor injuries, and no one was hurt in the other collision.

Between 2016 and 2020, 540 pedestrians were injured and four pedestrians killed on regional roads, according to the region’s collision data.

All four pedestrian deaths over the five years happened in the middle of a block after a pedestrian crossed where there was no crosswalk or traffic control.

Three quarters of collisions with pedestrians were at traffic signals or at stop signs; fewer than three per cent were at roundabouts.

No roundabout is listed among the 20 most dangerous regional roads for pedestrians based on collisions in the same five-year time frame.

The same cannot be said for cyclists. A roundabout at Arthur Street South and Sawmill Road in St Jacobs is ranked No. 17 among the 20 most dangerous intersections for cyclists. That’s after three collisions involving cyclists between 2016 and 2020.

During this period, 298 cyclists were injured and four killed in 428 collisions on regional roads. Two of these collisions involved people wrongly cycling in roundabout crosswalks.

When someone dies from a crash, the region does a fatal collision review to understand what happened and if there needs to be any changes to the intersection or area road involved. This involves looking through the police report and other regional data.

Van De Keere said the region will do a fatal collision review of the circumstances surrounding Rupapara’s death to see if there is anything that needs to be changed in the roundabout.

The two other collisions will also be reviewed.

“We also look for trends in the data for all the locations to see if there’s something we can improve on a system-wide basis,” he said.

It can sometimes take months for the police to complete the report.

Then the review process can take another two to three months.

“Fatalities are still unfortunate whenever they do occur, but they are more rare at roundabouts than they are at traffic signals, so people should not be overly worried,” he said, adding that international data points to the safety of roundabouts.

For future roundabout projects, the region is considering raised pedestrian crossings and flashing lights at pedestrian crossings.

“There could be projects coming up in the next couple of years that may have one or more of these additional features on them,” said van De Keere.

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