Residents in tiny Heron Lake, Minn., were resistant in 2018 when the Minnesota Department of Transportation proposed three intersections restricting the ability to cross Hwy. 60.
The intersections limit points where vehicles could collide by forcing drivers on side roads to turn right, go a short distance down the road, make a U-turn through the median, then loop back to the intersection to continue their trip.
"They are counterintuitive," said Anne Wolff, a MnDOT public engagement coordinator in southern Minnesota. "Something different is hard."
To sell the treatment known as a Restricted Crossing U-Turn Intersection, or J-Turn, the agency built a model. Residents at public meetings could guide a Matchbox-sized car through the design to break down the movements.
Then the agency did something unprecedented: After the intersections were built, MnDOT shut down the highway for a day and allowed residents to drive the intersections with their own vehicles before they officially opened.
"With the hands-on approach, it clicked," Wolff said. "They thought, 'This is not so bad.'"
Minnesota's first J-Turn intersection was built in 2009, and now more than 60 exist statewide with more planned. They have been credited with significantly reducing right-angle crashes resulting in serious injuries and deaths.
At Hwy. 60 and County Road 9 near Heron Lake, only one rear-end crash has occurred since the J-Turn went in. In the 10 years before it was built, the intersection saw 11 crashes resulting in three deaths. A majority were T-bone crashes, MnDOT data show.
Despite J-Turns' safety benefits — data showed they cut fatal and serious injury crashes at intersections by 69% — it's been tough to convince the public, said MnDOT traffic engineer Derek Leuer.
"They have never seen one," he said.
And when they do encounter the intersections, drivers are not fond of them.
Nichole Morris, director of the U's HumanFirst Lab, tested drivers to see what would make them more accepting of restricted-crossing intersections. Using a simulator, participants drove through three J-Turn intersections. That did not improve their attitudes toward J-Turns, Morris said.
A second group watched video testimonials from state troopers, truckers and crash victims who talked about their experience with J-Turns. After watching, participants rated the intersections more highly and were more willing to drive through them, Morris said.
"Testimonials tend to be pretty persuasive," she said.
A third group was randomly assigned to either watch an informational video, view a PowerPoint presentation, listen to a testimonial or watch a 3D simulation on a phone or computer. In all cases, acceptance of J-Turns rose, Morris found.
The findings, Morris said, show MnDOT should use a mixed strategy with persuasive and informational messages to drive up acceptance.
In Carver County, it was residents who gladly accepted the intersections along the newly expanded Hwy. 212.
"The community was adamant we have them," Leuer said. "They did not want any standard crossings."