Two weeks ago, Richfield police officer Brad Drayna began making daily visits to the busy roundabout at 66th Street and Portland Avenue S. He parked his squad car, watched and waited.
He didn't have to wait long.
About every 16 or 17 minutes, drivers broke the law. They failed to yield to cars already in the roundabout, made left turns from the right lane, even drove the wrong way into the one-way circle.
Instead of slowing down as they entered the roundabout, a couple of senior citizens "gunned it," Drayna said. "They all say they're very scared of the roundabout and want to get through as fast as possible."
It's been about 10 years since the first modern roundabout was added to a Minnesota road, but they still terrify and confuse some drivers. Richfield officials, frustrated that minor accidents persist when in theory there should be none, decided to do something about it.
In addition to heightened police enforcement, they are changing signs and road striping in and around the roundabout. They are trying to educate drivers with brochures, videos and electronic signs that warn drivers a block before they reach the roundabout to get in the proper lane -- and stay there.
"People clearly don't understand it," said Kristin Asher, Richfield city engineer.
If the confusion is baffling to traffic engineers, who say roundabouts aren't that different from regular intersections, it does not surprise John Hourdos, director of the Minnesota Traffic Observatory at the University of Minnesota. He is doing a state-funded study on driver behavior and the effects of signs and striping in the Richfield roundabout.
Still relatively new in the U.S.
In contrast to England, where there are about 20,000 roundabouts, the United States has about 2,500, most of them built in just the last few years.
"You cannot expect people to know all of a sudden how to drive in a roundabout," Hourdos said.
"Our roundabouts have a lot more signs and a lot more clues about how to drive them. For some drivers, more information is better. But other drivers get overwhelmed and they just shut it out."
The roundabout at 66th and Portland was built in 2008 to smooth traffic flow and increase safety at what had been one of the three most crash-prone Hennepin County intersections outside of Minneapolis. About 29,000 vehicles pass through the area daily. In the three years before the roundabout was built, there were 78 crashes at the intersection, some of them serious. The intersection had no left-turn lanes.
Unlike simpler single-lane roundabouts nearby, the one at 66th and Portland roundabout has two lanes that require drivers to know how to navigate the circle. In the first seven months of this year, there were nine crashes in the roundabout. Because drivers are supposed to slow as they enter the roundabout, accidents tend to be fender-benders. Still, Asher said, "we want people do better."
Driving habits need to change
Safely navigating two-lane roundabouts means changing long-standing driving habits. Drivers need to choose their lane before they enter the roundabout.
If they're going straight through a roundabout, they can drive in either lane. Those who intend to make a right turn use the right lane. To make a left turn or a U-turn, use the left lane.
In two-lane roundabouts, entering cars need to yield to both lanes of traffic. Once in a roundabout, drivers do not change lanes. If entering drivers yield to both lanes of traffic within the circle, there will be no accidents when a car exits.
Asher had long discussions with other engineers about how to make signs at roundabouts more clear. The city waited until new federal roundabout guidelines were issued, but when the book came out it acknowledged that even experts disagree on the best signs for the circles.
Are better signs the answer?
Simpler is better, Asher said. She believes that "fishhook" signs -- with squiggly directional arrows that curve around a dot for a left turn -- may be too elaborate for already nervous drivers to take in. The city is replacing them with directional lane signs with simple arrows like those used at conventional intersections.
The commonly used "yield" signs with the red triangle were replaced with "yield to both lanes" signs, and lane striping within the roundabout was changed to make it clearer where to exit.
For about two weeks, large flashing electronic signs set up a block before drivers enter the roundabout have warned them to "CHOOSE CORRECT LANE" and then to "STAY IN YOUR LANE." Those signs are soon coming down.
After three years with the roundabout, Asher said she can't go to a public meeting without hearing people talk about how they hate roundabouts -- or love them.
She hopes the changes help more people see the attributes. "You are in control," she said. "You don't have to wait for a red light. And it's safer."
Hourdos has two more years of data and video to collect before he knows how signs and striping affect safety in the roundabout. But after just two weeks of policing the roundabout for a couple of hours each workday, Drayna said he'd already seen the number of violations drop dramatically. He was passing out informational brochures on roundabouts to everyone he stopped.
"We're going to watch for another week or two, but it is definitely getting better," he said. "I think it's working."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380