The Calhoun County Commission is planning a roundabout on Bynum-Leatherwood Road, though one commissioner suggested banning half the population from using it.
“Are you going to let women use that intersection?” asked County Commissioner Eli Henderson, in an apparent joke that he later repeated.
Commissioners voted 5-0 Thursday to approve preliminary engineering work on “intersection improvements” where Bynum-Leatherwood meets Old Gadsden Highway. County officials say it's one of the busiest intersections drivers will encounter outside city limits.
The plan, said assistant county engineer Michael Hosch, is to build a roundabout — a traffic circle without stop signs, where traffic flows around a central island — at the intersection.
Roundabouts are common in Europe and on U.S. military bases, and Hosch said the Alabama Department of Transportation has been encouraging them as a solution at some intersections.
Hosch said there’s enough land to add the roundabout, at cost that could exceed $800,000, though official estimates won't be available until the preliminary engineering work is done.
The county could instead add turn lanes and upgrade the traffic lights to accommodate current traffic, Hosch said, but that would require the county to acquire more land. There's also the cost of maintaining the lights over time, Hosch said.
“It probably wouldn't be any cheaper to add a turn lane,” he said.
At least one local resident at the commission meeting was skeptical of the idea. Oxford resident Danny Shears asked whether the roundabout would slow down traffic at the intersection's most congested times — the shift changes at Anniston Army Depot. Heavy traffic, he said, might make it hard to pull into the intersection.
“I can foresee a situation where you have to wait five or seven or 10 minutes,” he said.
Henderson, the commissioner, seemed to ask whether any Calhoun County driver — and particularly women — knew how to use roundabouts. In a work session before the commission meeting, he posed the question of whether women would be allowed to use the intersection.
"You go round and round," he said. "I'm afraid my wife will get on it and be there for days."
County staff didn't answer Henderson's question about women and the intersection, and the meeting moved on. Henderson brought up the topic again during the regular commission meeting. Just as the commission was preparing to vote, Henderson said he wanted to comment on the issue.
“How many of us have ever been, Bill, have you ever been around a roundabout?” Henderson said, addressing McClellan Development Authority member Bill Robison, who was in the audience.
“Not in Calhoun County,” Robison replied. The two briefly discussed whether the county had ever had a roundabout.
“I'm worried that my wife's going to get on the thing and spend two days going around and around,” Henderson said.
“That's because she's never seen a shop to stop that,” Robison said.
In an interview after the meeting, Robison said he wasn't in the work session and wasn't aware of Henderson's earlier comment about women on the roundabout. He said he believed the roundabout would be hard to navigate without a landmark.
“There aren't any shops to pull over to,” he said.
Attempts to reach Henderson's wife, Board of Registrars member Carolyn Henderson, were unsuccessful Thursday.
Eli Henderson, in a telephone interview after the meeting, said the statements were meant as jokes.
“You know how women drivers are,” he said. Asked if he had proof that women drive differently than men, Henderson seemed to back away from that comment.
“You know, some of them might be a lot better, some of them might be worse,” he said.
Nationwide crash numbers, collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, suggest that a lot of women are better drivers. Men are three times more likely to be the driver in a fatal crash than women, according to NHTSA data from 2015 and 2016.
Young men, between 21 and 24, are the most likely to be in a fatal car accident. That risk declines as men age, but men Henderson's age — he's 82 — are more likely to die as drivers in fatal accidents than women of any age. That includes women aged 16-20, the highest-risk female group.
“Men are more likely to take risks behind the wheel, including driving without seat belts, speeding and driving while intoxicated,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a think tank funded by auto insurers.
Rader said male drivers are a higher risk in every category of crash — fatal wrecks, wrecks with non-fatal injuries and wrecks that cause property damage.
Men do drive more miles, overall, than women, Rader noted.
“Even when you normalize for mileage, men are still in fatal crashes about 60 percent more often,” he said.
Calhoun County does already have at least two roundabouts in place. One is at the entrance to Oxford’s Choccolocco Park. The other is the traffic circle in front of the old fire station at McClellan, the former Army base.
The base was the headquarters for the Women's Army Corps, and continued to be a basic training site for female recruits after the WAC was integrated with the rest of the Army.