A Roundabout Ruckus: Other Options for Making the Intersection of US 83 and 23 Safer

We missed the public input meeting about the newly proposed roundabout for the intersection of US 83 and 23 south of Minot, but it seems there was a pretty lively discussion about it. We understand; $16 million is a lot of money, and we’re not convinced that a roundabout would fix the issue. There are plenty of other options we could try first that could address the problem.

And make no mistake – there IS a problem. Per the Minot Daily News:

Handling about 2,800 vehicles a day, the intersection of Highways 83 and 23 is the state’s #1 for serious crashes. There have been 10 minor crashes and seven severe crashes involving death or incapacitating injuries in the past five years, including three fatalities in 2023.

The solution presented Wednesday by the North Dakota Department of Transportation calls for a roundabout on each side of the four lanes of Highway 83 where Highway 23 crosses. If the state proceeds, construction would start this summer.

What are the biggest issues with the intersection of 83 and 23?

There are a lot of issues with this intersection, but based on our years of helping folks who’ve been truly injured in wrecks at 83 and 23, here’s what we think:

  • The roads’ designs could use some work
  • Drivers aren’t always on their best behavior
  • Large trucks make it hard to pass

Fixing up the intersection of 83 and 23 near Minot

There are some things the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) could do to make those roads safer that don’t involve a months-long (or years-long) construction project. First, we could try adding a four-way stop on southbound 83. (If we added them at both places, we’d end up with a traffic jam on that stretch of 23 between the two roads, though we imagine a matching set of stops would wake people up a little bit.) The cost of the signage would be low, and they tend to be safer. Jeff Speck, a city planner in Portland, explains it this way:

Research now suggests that all-way stop signs, which ask motorists to approach each intersection as a negotiation, turn out to be much safer than signals. Unlike with signals, no law-abiding driver ever passes an all-way stop sign at more than a very low speed, and there is considerable eye contact among users. People walking and biking are generally waved through first. And nobody tries to beat the light.

We doubt anyone’s walking along either of these routes, but you do see the occasional bicycle and certainly enough motorcycles to make this a feasible alternative. If we want to be extra-cautious, we can use those fancy stop signs that light up. And if NDDOT is dying to spend money, it can always add some rumble strips before the stop signs, like they have on turnpikes and toll roads across the country.

Another option presented at the meeting was a right turn-only lane. The shoulders on US 83 are wide, so adding in a turning lane on eastbound 23 to get onto southbound 83 could be an easier option, since all you’d have to do is extend one lane and change up the paint. Plus, it keeps traffic flowing forward and provides a clear lane for turns, as opposed to making drivers get into the shoulder to do it.

Speeding and driver distraction can cause crashes, too

One of the residents at the meeting asked why, if adding the roundabout would drop the speed on US 83 to 45, NDDOT doesn’t just lower the speed limit in the first place? The answer is a bit more complicated – or at least, it requires a lot of red tape – but the short version is that it’s not always easy to change speed limits on intra- or interstate highways. But it’s still an excellent suggestion. We think the NDDOT should try lowering the speed limit first. It’s certainly the least expensive option. (One resident has a pretty good idea about those speed limit signs, too.)

HOWEVER, we readily admit that simply lowering the speed limit from 70 to 45 may not be enough. After all, that wide open road encourages speeding, especially given the landscape around it.

To this we say, maybe it’s time to bring back traffic cops.

Hear us out.

In 2020, there were 75 officers in the Minot Police Department – works out to about 15.6 officers per every 10,000 residents. There’s no set standard, but most sources we looked at said the ideal number of police is between three and four per every 1,000 people, which means for a city with a population of just under 48,000, we’d need between 94 and 112 police officers for the ideal force. To add another 25 cops to the payroll would work out to about $1.3 million a year (based on the average salary) which means for the same amount of money as a roundabout, we’d be able to place traffic cops with speed guns on these highways for about 10 years.*

Not only that, but there would be someone on the scene in case a distracted or drunk driver decides to blow through the stop signs, and that might prove invaluable. The faster someone can get to a scene, the faster emergency services can be contacted – and minutes can save lives when you’re stuck in a slough or need to be airlifted to a hospital. Even when folks don’t suffer life-altering injuries, having police get there quicker means there’s someone who can record what’s happening only moments after a car accident.

*We say 10 years because there is more than just salaries to contend with, such as the costs of health benefits, retirement plans, and professional costs like uniform reimbursement. We also recognize that while all North Dakotans pay taxes, which would help fund NNDOT’s road plans, the folks here in Minot would be on the hook for paying police salaries – but we still think this is a better option.

The necessary dangers of large trucks on US 83 and 23 in Minot

US 83 in particular is a popular route for large trucks, and that’s part of the problem: we need these trucks for our and the country’s economic health, but driving around them can be, well, a pain. They’re almost impossible to see around and sometimes they’re very slow, which can back up traffic. Passing a truck on either of those roads is a real risk, too, as visibility isn’t always high.

One alternative presented by residents was a truck acceleration lane, which could work, too. It’ll keep trucks out of the lanes for passenger vehicles and reduce congestion because they won’t hold up the rest of us. Plus, having commercial vehicles in a different lane may reduce the risk of collisions with trucks. In truth, we’ve no idea how cost effective that would be, but it would certainly cost less than the $50,000,000 to $60,000,000 it would cost for an overpass. Our recommendation would be adding it to 83 north.

Why we believe a roundabout isn’t the best idea for Minot

The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) encourages towns and cities to build roundabouts because they “promote lower speeds and traffic calming,” and the truth is the agency isn’t wrong: when you look at the raw data, roundabouts do have fewer accidents than intersections do. There are fewer places for “conflict” – AKA, positions where vehicles can crash – and they reduce the risk of angle crashes and head-on collisions, according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. IIHS also says there’s an environmental benefit because they reduce emissions from idling vehicles, and that they’re safer for pedestrians because traffic is only moving in one direction.

But as we said, there are no pedestrians on US 83 or US 23 in Minot. And while there may be a slight reduction in emissions from idling cars, we don’t know if it will be offset by the number of drivers who get stuck trying to enter the roadway because they’re unsure what to do.

This is the real crux of the argument, we think. Folks just don’t know how to drive in roundabouts:

What are you even supposed to do with this thing? No wonder they’re safer: everyone stops dead until the road is clear and then they inch out at 7mph because which lane should you be in? What if you’re in the wrong lane? What are the chances you get stuck in the middle forever? What if there’s a truck to the left of you – does it go first? Do you? Will you get hit?

We don’t know what NDDOT will do here, but we hope they listen to the people. There may come a day when a roundabout is necessary and inevitable, but we don’t think today is that day. There are many other options we could and should try first that could solve the problem of this deadly intersection. If those options fail, then we guess we’ll all learn about roundabouts soon enough.

For now, Larson Law is here to help if you do get into a wreck at the intersection of US 83 and 23 near Minot, or on any road in North Dakota. We’ve been helping injured folks just like you since 1979, and we’ll be there to help your children and your grandchildren, too. To learn more about our services, call us or contact us today, and set up your free consultation with one of our Minot car accident lawyers. Proudly serving the communities of Fargo and Bismarck, too.