All about roundabouts: What drivers need to know about traffic circles

FARGO -- Metro area drivers, get ready to join the loop, because downtown will have its first intersection controlled by a roundabout here in the not-so-distant future.
This aerial photo shows the roundabout at 52nd Avenue South and Sheyenne Street in West Fargo. Jordan Ryan / WDAY

FARGO - Metro area drivers, get ready to join the loop, because downtown will have its first intersection controlled by a roundabout here in the not-so-distant future.

The traffic circle will be part of the Main Avenue reconstruction project that begins in spring 2019 and will go in at Second Street, west of Veterans Memorial Bridge.

North Dakota has nearly 40 roundabouts, built by either cities, counties or the state. Of those, eight were installed at state highway intersections by the Department of Transportation.

NDDOT traffic operations engineer Shawn Kuntz said drivers were lukewarm initially.

"When we first started putting them in, we had some skepticism," he said.

Mike Bittner, a traffic engineer with KLJ in West Fargo, said change can be tough.

"You have to find the right spots to get people to warm up to them," he said.

Now, Kuntz said people are asking for more.

Roundabouts already dot nearly 20 intersections in the F-M area, and more are sure to come, with their growing safety reputation.

Crashes where people were seriously hurt or killed dropped 78 percent when roundabouts replaced stoplight-controlled intersections, and 82 percent when roundabouts replaced two-way stop intersections, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Even more dramatic results came out of a recent Minnesota Department of Transportation report showing an 86 percent drop in serious crashes where roundabouts were installed.

Only property damage and minor injury crashes have occurred since a roundabout was put in on Highway 75 south of Moorhead in 2011.

In seven years prior, two people died and one person suffered moderate injuries in crashes there.

Kuntz said at a four-legged intersection, there are 32 potential points where two vehicles can hit each other, while a roundabout has only 8 conflict points.

In January, the NDDOT announced a partnership with other statewide agencies on a traffic safety initiative called Vision Zero, which aims to reduce serious injury crashes.

"A roundabout is just one tool that we have that we know works. It's proven," Kuntz said.

The right fit

Just because a roundabout is generally safer doesn't mean it's the best fit everywhere.

For example, Bittner said a roundabout wouldn't be a good choice for the heavy traffic intersection of 13th Avenue and 45th Street in Fargo.

The suggested roundabout for downtown Fargo is part of a city and NDDOT project to reconstruct Main between Second Street and University Drive.

Each of the four plans under consideration costs around $13 million and has a projected start of spring 2019.

Jeremy Gorden, transportation division engineer for the City of Fargo, is recommending the roundabout because the interchange is skewed, and it has many turning movements coming and going from a nearby railroad underpass.

"This will also improve the single lane movement on Main Avenue without the starts and stops associated with a traffic signal," he said.

In addition, a roundabout will provide an opportunity for a landscaped entrance into the city.

Know rules of road

Though there are fewer accidents causing deaths and injuries in roundabouts, crashes still happen.

In fact, one series of roundabouts on 25th Street South in Fargo near Davies High School has a dubious distinction.

According to a NDDOT report, 12 of the total 43 rear-end crashes at roundabouts in the state happened near Davies.

All occurred in dry conditions and involved high school age drivers - presumably, students in a hurry to get to and from class.

Kuntz said it's likely not for lack of education available on roundabouts.

"We have it in our rules of the road for the driver's permit test. We have a whole page on roundabouts on how to navigate them," he said.

He said there are so many things to distract drivers and not just younger ones.

"People just need to mind their speed and pay attention to the road," he said.

What they look like

Roundabouts don't have to be circular. They can also be oval, teardrop and peanut-shaped.

There are, however, three common characteristics.

Traffic travels counterclockwise, entering drivers must yield to circulating traffic and speeds are lower, generally 15 to 25 miles per hour.

The United States has had roundabouts for more than 20 years, now numbering around 4,500, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

They've even found their way into national parks, including Yosemite National Park in California and Arches National Park in Utah.

The largest roundabout in the world is Putrajaya Roundabout in Malaysia, an egg-shaped route that's two miles around.

Roundabouts built more recently in the F-M area are larger than some of the earlier ones, specifically to accommodate big vehicles such as fire trucks, snow plows and buses.

A "truck apron" gives those drivers a little more room to navigate. "It's a kind of mountable curb they can actually go off onto the roundabout, and that's how it's designed," Bittner said.

And, the larger the roundabout, the higher the cost. It's up for debate whether they're cheaper to build than a stoplight-controlled intersection.

Kuntz said with traffic lights, the cost of ongoing maintenance and upgrading adds up over time.

The upfront cost of a roundabout is higher, Bittner said, because there's more work from a contractor's perspective.