Judy King of Stillwater is no neophyte driver. But she didn't like the intersection she encountered when she drove to a soccer field in Woodbury.

It was a roundabout, one of the circular intersections that are popping up in Minnesota as an alternative to traditional intersections with stop signs or traffic lights.

"I've been driving for 30 years, and I don't really know how I'm supposed to go through it," King said. "I think a lot of people are confused."

The chance to be confused is growing, because Minnesota road officials have fallen in love with roundabouts. As of March, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, 86 roundabouts had been built, were under construction or were planned in the state. That was up 39 percent from a tally made just eight months before.

Blaine, Burnsville, Rochester, Brooklyn Park, Rosemount and Cottage Grove all have roundabouts.

Last year, Edina opened three roundabouts within half a mile on a retail strip of W. 70th Street between York and France Avenues.

One of the most ambitious recent projects is in Richfield, where a two-lane roundabout is replacing the city's most dangerous intersection, at Portland Avenue and 66th Street. The old intersection had traffic lights but no left-turn lanes. It was made riskier by a hill that prevented some drivers from seeing approaching traffic. There have been about 30 crashes there each year, some of them severe.

A roundabout should be "a tremendous improvement," said Richfield transportation engineer Tom Foley. "We have no worry about people zipping through a yellow light like they do at an intersection."

Seeing fewer crashes

National data indicate crash rates drop 35 percent and severe injuries decrease by 76 percent when four-way intersections are converted to roundabouts. MnDOT's analysis of a roundabout built at the intersection of Hwy. 13 and County Road 2 in Scott County shows a similar reduction in crashes. In the five years before the roundabout was built, the intersection had two fatal accidents, 26 crashes with injuries to 50 people, and nine accidents that resulted in property damage. Since the roundabout opened in 2005, four crashes have been reported, with three resulting in injury and none in fatalities.

Near Edina's three single-lane roundabouts, Police Chief Mike Siitari said, there have been eight minor accidents in nine months.

"There does not appear to be a significant problem with accidents there," he said. "It slows the traffic significantly."

Therein lies the attraction for traffic engineers: Ideally, traffic never stops moving in roundabouts, but they're quite safe because drivers must slow to 15 to 20 miles per hour to enter the circles. Accidents usually are fender benders.

In Maple Grove, where three roundabouts opened on busy roads in 2005, there haven't been any serious accidents, said city traffic engineer Marc Culver.

"Every once in a while we would see a piece of a turn signal [lying in the road]," he said. "We did have an initial negative reaction, but there haven't been any big complaints in 18 months. They've been working very well."

But drivers are still getting used to them, Culver said.

"Sometimes at peak hours we'll see a car stop and two or three cars stop behind them," he said. "Generally, it clears out very quickly. But for some people, the comfort level's not there yet."

Education on the round

In Richfield, a two-lane roundabout on 66th Street opened in October outside the new Cedar Point Commons retail development. Foley estimated six accidents have happened there. The biggest problem for drivers, he said, is understanding that cars on the inside lane have the right of way when exiting.

Many drivers seem go out of their way to be considerate, he said. He's seen some drivers who have the right of way encourage timid drivers by stopping and tooting their horn to get them to enter the circle.

"It's kind of a community education program," Foley said.

King wants more than courtesy from other drivers. She thinks a public service campaign is needed to explain how roundabouts work. She was impressed when she saw drivers in Australia smoothly navigating two-way roundabouts.

"Everyone knew what that inside lane was used for," King said. "Here, it's very, very new. Everyone is just a little puzzled."

Cities have started to use "fishhook signs" that illustrate how traffic is supposed to flow in two-lane roundabouts. In Washington County, where a two-lane roundabout opened last year at Radio Drive and Bailey Road in Woodbury, the county has changed pavement striping and signs to help people understand how to approach the roundabout. They've run "Roundabout U" sessions and are doing newsletters on the subject, too.

While there have been 22 crashes in the roundabout, they've been "minor fender benders," said Cory Slagle, county engineering and construction manager. At the old intersection, drivers going at least 50 miles per hour on both roads ran the risk of T-bone crashes if someone ran a stop sign.

Slagle said the rules in a two-lane roundabout are simple: Yield to drivers already in the circle. If you're going straight or making a right turn, stay in the right lane. If you're making a left turn, you should be in the center lane. You can also go straight.

"There is a learning curve here," he said. "But crashes should go down."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380