Before the city of Richfield agreed to put a stop sign at the end of Bill Kilian's block a few years ago, there were three car crashes at the intersection. In one, a car driven by a neighbor rolled on its side after being T-boned by an oncoming vehicle.

So the Richfield city councilman feels good about the council's decision earlier this month to add two-way stops to every uncontrolled intersection.

Richfield has 455 controlled intersections now, while 250 have no traffic light or stop sign. Those 250 will get two stop signs each within the next three years at a cost of $30,000. City officials are convinced it will reduce confusion and make the streets safer.

"People generally have been in favor of this ... but I still have people who say, 'I don't want any stop signs, period,'" Kilian said. "They say people roll through them, don't stop, they don't slow down." But, he said, "I think we will have fewer accidents."

Richfield's decision is unusual, said Lars Impola, a district traffic engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Based on the e-mail chatter he sees from traffic engineers in cities locally and nationally, he said, more cities seem to be removing stop signs.

But Richfield officials think they're on the right track to improving safety and traffic flow.

A U-turn in policy

City transportation engineer Tom Foley admitted that the project is an about-face.

Richfield's old policy was similar to that of many cities: It added stop signs only where traffic became too heavy, or where there were repeated accidents or speeding.

The policy said "overuse of stop signs reduces their effectiveness ... they are largely ignored, with many drivers not making complete stops." It said too many signs led to speeding between signs.

So Foley was a skeptic when the city decided to test adding 18 to 20 stop signs on streets near the new Cedar Point Commons development on the city's eastern edge.

"Transportation engineers have to understand human behavior, and I've been fascinated by this ever since I became one," Foley said.

To his surprise, the results of the yearlong trial showed that with stop signs, drivers went slower 64 percent of the time.

At intersections with two-way stop controls, crashes dropped by half.

Puzzled, Foley sent the study to the University of Minnesota for engineers to evaluate. They confirmed that the results were legitimate.

The city also monitored accidents on parallel stretches of 67th and 68th Streets between Portland Avenue and 12th Avenue S. One had periodic stop signs; the other had none. Crashes declined fivefold on the one with signs.

Kilian said Richfield's situation is complicated by the fact that the city borders Minneapolis, where most residential intersections are controlled by stop signs. Many drivers who continue into Richfield or who drive from busy areas near the new Best Buy headquarters expect to keep seeing stop signs. "People started to assume that if there was no stop sign at an intersection, there was [a stop sign] for other drivers," Kilian said. Collisions ensued.

East-west streets will be free

While the Richfield plan sounds as if it could lead to maddening fits and starts, Foley said it shouldn't.

Instead of using the "basket-weave" design employed in residential areas of Minneapolis -- one stop sign every two blocks, with the pattern trading off between north-south and east-west streets -- Richfield will put new stop signs on north-south streets.

That's because drivers will be able to go farther before hitting a stop sign -- north-south blocks are 660 feet long, compared with 330-foot-long east-west blocks -- and because most arterial streets in Richfield, which already have stoplights, run north-south. Drivers should be able to quickly get to the main streets by turning off a residential street with stop signs onto a sign-free east-west street that will lead to a north-south thoroughfare, Foley said.

The stop sign project will get underway this year at the city's northern edge, where many drivers have detoured onto residential streets in an attempt to avoid construction on Crosstown Hwy. 62. Neighborhoods will be involved in the planning, Foley said.

"My own guess is that most people like stop signs and think it's safer with signs," he said. "But we don't know until we start talking with them."

So what happened to the tried-and-true system of relying on drivers' common sense to yield to the driver on the right? Is Richfield becoming the nagging nanny of the streets?

Foley said there are two views.

"One is to try to protect people as much as you can, and the other to assume that people are intelligent and responsible," he said. "We are suggesting that people learn the best route to get in and out of their neighborhood. People will know the pattern."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380