Why roundabouts are safer for drivers and pedestrians
In the last five to ten years, we have been seeing an increase in the number of roundabouts being installed around the country, state and here in the Northland.
MnDOT District Traffic Engineer Jim Miles says the reason for this is because it cuts the risk of crashes substantially. “In a typical 4-way intersection with a traffic light there are 32 conflict points. When looking at a roundabout there are only eight conflict points.”
“Roundabouts are probably one of our safest solutions for a four way or a three way intersection that has a crash problem there. They’re safer for the motoring public and pedestrians. The traffic flow is greatly improved over a typical four way stop or signal,” say Morrie Luke.
Assistant District Traffic Engineer Morrie Luke notes that it is impossible to get into a head on collision in a roundabout, “unless someone does something stupid and goes the opposite way.”
Despite how safe they are, controversy around traffic circles remains. On November 13th, the Duluth City Council approved yet another roundabout to be build on London Rd. and 40th Ave. East. During the city council meeting many different groups voiced concerns about pedestrian safety, bike lanes and the heavy traffic on London Road.
An example that MnDOT officials use to prove their theories that roundabouts work is the intersection in Cloquet where Highway 22 and 35 merges. Luke says that prior to building this roundabout there was a possible injury crash or injury crash every five months. Corinne Gornick-Heehn lives nearby and says “I would regularly see crashes.” Since the installation, Luke says that there has only been one crash since then. “The difference between that crash and others we saw there is that these people were able to go home to their families that night.”
Roundabouts are not going anywhere, so it’s important that we all start to better understand them and learn how to navigate them whether you are a fan of them or not.
In Europe roundabouts are quite common when talking it comes to intersections. The “Arc de Triomphe” may be one of the most famous roundabout in the world. Here in the U.S., we are not as used to these traffic circles. The first roundabout was introduced the United States in Summerlin, Nevada in 1990. With the introduction of roundabouts traffic engineers started to realize that these are a safer alternative to stop lights and stop signs.
It did not take long for Minnesota to hop on the rotary bandwagon. MnDOT official Pippi Mayfield tells me that the first roundabout to be built in Minnesota was just five years later. In 1995, Brooklyn Park, near Minneapolis constructed the state’s first traffic circle. In 2002 Mayfield says that the trunk highways were introduced to its first roundabout on I-35 and CSAH 12 in Medford.
In 2021 there were 7,388 pedestrians killed on U.S. roadways. Officials say this is the highest since 1981 when 7,837 pedestrians died due to traffic crashes. Morrie Luke also works with U.S DOT and says that in the United States there has never been a reported pedestrian fatality in marked crosswalk within a roundabout.
Mayfield says that roundabouts reduce the risk of pedestrian crashes by 60-70% versus conventional intersections, including signalized intersections. This is due to slower speeds when entering a roundabout says Luke.
In 2021 42,915 people died on U.S. roads. This number was alarming for engineers around the country. In 2022 Luke says that engineers introduced a national approach called Safe System Objectives: Safer people, roads, vehicles, speeds and post crash care. Adding more roundabouts checks all of those boxes.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has statistics to back this.
- 86% decrease in fatal crashes
- 83% decrease in life-altering injury crashes
- 42% overall decrease in the injury crash rate at intersections
This is the part that most people find confusing, scary or just do not like in general. Miles says that if you are feeling nervous about driving a roundabout that it may be beneficial to you to first walk the circle. Though, Miles says to avoid the center of the roundabout and stay on the sidewalk around the traffic circle.
MnDOT has step by step instructions for you to follow if roundabouts make you nervous:
- Slow down when approaching a roundabout. For multi-lane roundabouts, as with any intersection, get into the appropriate lane.
- Yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk. It is the law.
- Yield to vehicles already in the roundabout. Merge into the traffic flow when it is safe.
- Continue through the roundabout until you reach your exit. Do not stop or pass in a roundabout.
- Exit the roundabout immediately if an emergency vehicle approaches, and then pull over. Do not stop in the roundabout.
- Yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk when exiting the roundabout.
- Give large trucks extra space in a roundabout. Large trucks may straddle both lanes while driving through a multi-lane roundabout.
They also have instructions for navigating as a pedestrian or bicyclist as well.
Another big question is whether or not you need to use your blinker when entering or exiting a roundabout. Mayfield says “You did not need to signal to enter a roundabout, because it is the only place you can go. There is no law or technical direction, as you said, when exiting roundabout. Most drivers do not use a signal to exit. Some drivers use it as an indication they are exiting, but we do not necessarily instruct drivers to use it or not.”