By next summer, a new roundabout will replace a traditional traffic signal at a busy and often congested intersection in downtown Prior Lake, and Lois Kocon isn’t convinced it will make things any better.
“It makes me anxious,” said Kocon, who lives near the interchange being built at Hwy. 13 and County Road 21. “You are at the mercy of the person to your right. A lot of people are concerned how that will work. Is it going to solve a problem? Will it make the problems worse?”
Kocon wanted to know if roundabouts really deliver the safety and traffic flow benefits that experts say they have. So she asked Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project, to find out.
With only about 5,000 roundabouts on the nation’s roads — making them still somewhat uncommon — it’s natural for drivers to find them confusing. But Jim Brainard, the mayor of Carmel, Ind., is a big proponent. He spent time studying law in the United Kingdom and marveled at how traffic flowed through roundabouts. In 1996, he brushed off ridicule and brought the first one to Carmel. Now with 126 of them, the city north of Indianapolis is virtually free of traffic lights and unofficially known as the “Roundabout Capital of America.”
“I’m responsible,” he proudly says, touting the results that have come with them. Property-damage crashes at Carmel’s roundabouts are down 40%, and crashes with injuries have dropped by 75%.
Results in Carmel mirror what has occurred nationally, where the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have found a 37% decrease in total crashes and a 75% drop in injury crashes when compared with traditional intersections.
More than 10,000 motorists died at intersections in 2018, according to FHWA, and fatalities often resulted from head-on, right-angle or T-bone crashes. Roundabouts have a better safety record because motorists are generally driving in the same direction and at slower speeds, said Joe Gustafson, a traffic engineer with Washington County Public Works Traffic Operations.
“You are generally cleaning up glass and not blood,” he said.
Alleviating congestion in downtown Prior Lake is the major driver behind the construction of the roundabout on Hwy. 13 and another one nearby, said Scott County engineer Tony Winiecki.
Though some drivers are still apprehensive about roundabouts, concerns and anxiety generally go away after they drive or walk through them, said Jeff Shaw,intersections program manager with FHWA.
The roundabout at Hwy. 13 and County Road 21 to be completed by July 2020 is anticipated to reduce traffic delays by 85%, and crashes resulting in serious injuries are expected to drop by 75%, according to Nicole Schmidt, a project spokeswoman. Those are numbers Brainard said should allay Kocon’s fears.
“She will be a lot safer as a driver,” he said “She will learn to love it.”