Carver County government officials have posted tips on government websites, offered brochures at city halls and educational programs on local cable TV, all to combat a growing source of public discontent: Roundabouts.
Two of the European-style traffic-control circles were recently installed along Hwy. 7 near Mayer and Watertown as part of a 22-mile, $13 million resurfacing project.
They quickly drew the ire of motorists who have flooded city halls with calls, posted complaints on the Internet and written letters to the editor in hometown newspapers about the confusion caused by the traffic circles.
"We have gotten a lot of comments, some to the good, some to the bad," said project engineer Kelly Brunkhorst of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Some callers have complained to city administrators that the roundabouts are too dark or poorly marked. Others have said they are too small to handle large trucks.
Others have objected to placing the roundabouts on a busy state highway where motorists are accustomed to traveling at speeds of 55 miles per hour. The roundabouts require that they slow to as low as 5 miles per hour as they enter the circles.
"They are obviously out of place there," said Todd Ruppert, a Minnetonka man who travels that stretch of road on a regular basis to visit relatives. "This was a test case that went bad."
Just last month, shortly after the second roundabout was completed, the driver of a cattle truck missed signals warning about the new traffic pattern at Hwys. 7 and 25 near Mayer and rolled his truck. Although he was not injured, six of the animals in his trailer were killed.
"You are going to see a lot more of that," Ruppert predicted Wednesday. "It is only a matter of time before there are deadly consequences."
A growing trend
The roundabouts, borrowed from Europe, have become increasingly popular in Minnesota. Ten years ago, there were no roundabouts in the state, and now there are almost 100, according to MnDOT.
Among the most recent are those on Hwy. 7 at its intersections with Hwy. 25 and with County Road 10. They are among about 10 that have been installed on state highways.
MnDOT said the two intersections have long histories of accidents and fatalities, making them prime candidates for roundabouts, which traffic engineers agree greatly reduce accidents and, more importantly, fatalities.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety a decade ago studied dozens of intersections around the country that had been converted to roundabouts in the early to mid-1990s. The group found that accidents were reduced by about 40 percent, injury accidents declined 75 percent, and deadly accidents dropped by 90 percent.
But traffic engineers also are aware that there is a learning curve involved in driving through roundabouts, especially when they first appear in an area.
Frank Ryan, a Richfield resident, said he can see how roundabouts might help traffic flow. But he also sees problems as traffic gets backed up because of vehicles slowing to enter a roundabout. Then there is the issue of people not yielding to traffic already in the roundabout.
"I've nearly had accidents several times when drivers have failed to yield, and they have seemed honestly puzzled as to why I did not stop for them," he said. "Both of these problems become more severe in icy conditions."
To reduce that learning curve, city agencies and MnDOT have issued a list of driving tips for roundabouts. Municipalities and traffic departments also are spending considerable time on notices and signs for roundabouts.
But there are indications this might not be working yet, judging by a recent online poll run by the Minnesota Autosports Club, which asked visitors if training is needed for roundabouts. Sixty percent of those responding said yes.
"They don't come with instructions," Ruppert said. "People don't know how to use them. We're talking rural Minnesota here, not downtown Paris."
Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280