WORTHINGTON - There’s a joke in the trucking community about Worthington’s northernmost roundabout, located by JBS.
“Who’s going to jump it next?”
The wisecrack refers to an infamous incident in which a motorhome jumped over the roundabout late last year. But truck drivers have had their share of well-publicized roundabout mishaps as well. In the last year, there have been at least four confirmed instances of semi trucks tipping over or losing their load in Worthington roundabouts.
Area truck drivers expressed concern about roundabouts before the first of three was completed in 2012. Many still do to this day, citing various issues they cause for their trucks and trailers.
“They’re not big enough … they’re made for cars, not trucks” said Jim Schutte, a semi driver from Rushmore. “When you go in, you’ve got the truck in the left lane and a trailer in the right, so if you get a car beside you, you have to watch out not to run them over.”
Schutte carefully drives through Worthington roundabouts 10 times a week, hauling feed out of the city. With his feed trailer, the center of gravity is far higher. That, combined with the fact that the truck must drive over the arched “truck apron” in the center of the circle to fit, forces Schutte to drive very slowly and cautiously.
“You’re top heavy, so you hit that impact curb and it tips the truck,” Schutte said.
Add in heavy winds, and these combined factors could easily cause the trailer to roll over, said Gary Abels, a Brewster semi driver and owner of Abels Transport. In addition to tipping, the truck apron can cause hang-up issues if the trailer has low ground clearance.
“My trailer is only four inches off the ground when it’s heavy, so then I have to avoid the apron,” Abels said.
On one occasion, Abels was forced to avoid Worthington roundabouts entirely. Delivering a planter to Worthington Ag Parts, he was not allowed to travel through the roundabout due to an oversized load, per state law.
“That’s another issue,” Abels said. “Trucks with oversized trailers can make normal turns, but they can’t go through roundabouts, so how are we supposed to get into town if they build even more roundabouts?”
Abels said Worthington’s roundabouts are about average compared to others around the state. For comparison, the single-lane roundabout west of New Ulm on U.S. 14 is far tighter and more difficult to navigate.
No matter the variant of roundabout, one consistent complaint from truck drivers is the lack of awareness from other drivers.
“People do not pay attention going into them - that’s my biggest pet peeve about roundabouts,” Abels said. “Passenger vehicles just don’t provide enough room. Some of them even drive up onto the truck apron.”
Abels also isn’t convinced roundabouts are safer. The statistics speak for themselves, but don’t paint a clear picture.
Make no mistake, the kind of “unbalanced” roundabouts featured in Worthington - which have a dedicated right turn lane and driving lane - cause more crashes, on average, compared to other intersection types. However, the crash types observed on roundabouts are significantly less severe.
A 2017 Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) study using crash data from 144 roundabouts in Minnesota, including the Oxford Street and Nobles County 35 roundabouts, found that unbalanced roundabouts saw a 44 percent increase in total crashes compared to the intersections they replaced. The number of sideswipes, when vehicles traveling the same direction crash, went up by 774 percent.
Those numbers are staggering, but so are the positive statistics. As of the study’s publishing, not a single fatal crash had been recorded on an unbalanced roundabout in Minnesota. Compared to preceding intersections, serious injury crashes decreased by 78 percent and often-deadly right-angle or T-bone crashes were cut by 25 percent.
For MnDOT, reducing severe or fatal crashes is the top priority. MnDOT makes a clear tradeoff whenever it replaces a stoplight with a roundabout, understanding that it may cause more sideswipes and issues for semi trucks.
“A semi entering a roundabout too fast is probably more of a risk than if they entered a signal or thru-stop type of condition,” said Derek Leuer, MnDOT principal engineer. “The roundabout is designed so the geometry compels drivers to slow down. We have heard complaints from the trucking industry that roundabouts are difficult to navigate, but it’s one of those tradeoffs we’re willing to make.”
Not everyone in the industry hates roundabouts. Mike Smith, vice president and general manager at Smith Trucking, didn’t speak for his own drivers, but said the company is in favor of the current roundabouts, as they reduce the severity of crashes and keep the flow of traffic moving.
“Going through that intersection every day, I can tell you without a doubt, these are safer than what we had before,” Smith said, referencing the northernmost roundabout, which used to be an intersection that required vehicles to drive through two lanes of oncoming traffic to get to Interstate 90.
“I saw many, many times where people got into accidents when they thought they were going to beat the car and they got t-boned,” Smith continued. “And the severity of those accidents and injuries was far greater than anything I’ve seen since these have been put in.”
From 2006 to 2012, that intersection experienced 36 crashes, a dozen of which caused injury, according to MnDOT. From 2014 to 2015, the roundabout saw five crashes, none of which caused injury.
Smith referenced the video of the motorhome flying over the roundabout as a benefit of the circular intersections compared to a stoplight.
“It was a funny video to watch, but think about if that roundabout wasn’t there and you were the last person in line for that red light when that camper came up,” Smith said. “You’d probably be severely injured because that guy wasn’t paying attention to how fast he was going anyway.”
Smith said most roundabout crashes, whether it’s a semi truck or passenger car, are caused by drivers entering the intersection too fast. He said truck drivers deal with more difficult situations on a daily basis, such as backing a 75-foot semi into an access point located in an alley.
“As long as you’re not talking about an oversized specialized piece of equipment, a normal tractor-trailer that people are familiar with, roundabouts are fine to get around,” Smith said. “I can tell you, doing this all our lives, that there’s a lot tighter places to get in and out of and get around than what these things are.”
Nonetheless, Smith said the Minnesota 60 roundabout could use blinking lights to alert drivers of the roundabout, as some of the crashes could have been caused by drivers that weren’t paying attention.
For Abels and Schutte, if the roundabouts must remain, they should be made larger and with a flat truck apron around the middle. They also made sure to request that no new roundabouts are built.
“If they put one in on Oxford Street and [Diagonal Road], they’re out of their mind, with all the truck traffic,” Schutte said. “Nobody takes into consideration trucks.”