Ever wonder about that huge pile of dirt in the middle of Victoria Circle as you're driving into downtown Fredericton?
That dirt, also known as a central mound, is actually there for a reason.
It's to keep you from seeing what other vehicles are doing elsewhere in the new roundabout at the bottom of Smythe Street near the Victoria Health Centre.
The central mound is supposed to help you focus on what you're supposed to be doing, which is looking for pedestrians and traffic coming from the left side of the roundabout.
"We're just trying to keep the driver paying attention and focusing on what's critical for them to focus on, versus what might be happening somewhere else," said Jon Lewis, a traffic engineer for the City of Fredericton.
The central mound also prevents drivers from being distracted by headlights on the other side of the roundabout at night.
All the traffic circles in Fredericton have central mounds, including the Smythe Street roundabout, the Two Nations Crossing roundabout. Even the Killam Drive roundabout near the Moncton Coliseum has a central mound.
"Roundabouts are an evolving and ever-changing art form in terms of design," Lewis said.
"The majority of new roundabouts would follow the idea of raising the central mound, which is considered best practice."
But not everyone agrees.
Lewis has received many calls from people asking why they can't see across a traffic circle.
"Some drivers would say they prefer to see what's happening on the other side of the circle as they enter," he said.
"The safety behind it is you don't need to see what's happening at the other side."
Central mounds have been around in other parts of the world for some time, although other cities have been creative about filling the space than Fredericton's been so far.
Singapore has the Fountain of Wealth at the centre of its roundabout in Suntec City. In 1998, it was listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the largest fountain in the world.
There's also the Victory Monument in Thailand, which was built in 1941 to mark the bravery of military personnel, police and civilians who died during the Franco-Thai War.
Carmel, a city of about 92,000 in Indiana, has 120 roundabouts, making it one of the leading roundabout cities in the United States.
Jeremy Kashman, director of engineering for Carmel, said one of the more notable central mounds is near two schools and contains a sculpture of a rock, paper and scissors.
Another roundabout near contains the "Beacon Bloom," a large sculpture of a flower that lights up at night.
Kashman said the central mounds generate conversation, and he doesn't see the sculptures as a distraction.
"I don't think people are really driving by staring at it. But it really works to focus on the quality of place."
'The see-through problem'
Alan Brokopp, a senior transportation engineer for Crandall Engineering Ltd., said central mounds have been popping up across North America over the past 10 years.
And he's grateful for the trend.
"When drivers can see across the roundabout they start doing some funny things," said Brokopp, who is also part of the Transportation Association of Canada's roundabout committee.
He calls it "the see-through problem."
Without a central mound, some drivers will speed up to try to beat other traffic to the circle. Other drivers become more timid and slow down more than they should.
Some drivers believe that whoever gets to the roundabout first has the right of way, regardless of who is already in the traffic circle. Drivers entering a roundabout are supposed to yield to those already there.
While many roundabouts have central mounds, Brokopp said some older roundabouts in Europe don't. He said it's because drivers there know where they need to look inside a traffic circle.
"In North America, it's still a challenge," he said.
"Every roundabout that we open, we have to re-educate the public and get them on board with how to operate these things."
Finding art in a traffic circle
The pile of dirt in the middle of the downtown Fredericton roundabout won't be there forever.
Next year, the mound will be transformed by art, to be commissioned by the city and installed in the middle of the roundabout. Lewis said the art that's chosen won't be distracting for drivers.
"It's an opportunity to really improve the look and feel as you're entering the downtown core."
The Victoria Circle Roundabout is expected to open this month.
"There will be a bit of a learning curve of course, once it opens," said Lewis.
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