Change to Grand Rapids roundabout confuses drivers

Wealthy Street and Jefferson Avenue roundabout
The updated roundabout at Jefferson Avenue and Wealthy Street SE in Grand Rapids, as seen from atop the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. (Sept. 27, 2016)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Just when many Grand Rapids drivers were getting comfortable with the roundabout at Wealthy Street and Jefferson Avenue SE, the city has changed the lanes, leaving many motorists confused.

From the roof of Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital’s new six-story building adjacent to the roundabout, 24 Hour News 8 got a bird’s-eye view of the problem.

“It seems like there’s a little bit of confusion on the part of commuters as to what is the process they need to follow,” said Mary Free Bed Security Chief Senez Rodriguez.

We watched as three vehicles come close to playing an unintended game of roundabout bumper cars.

“They’re not seeing that the outside lane is the lane that you’re supposed to (use to) make a right onto Jefferson,” explained Rodriguez.

Under the old configuration, drivers could use both lanes to go through the roundabout. But starting last weekend, only the inside lane would take vehicles through; drivers in the outside lane must take the first exit off the roundabout.

>>Inside How to navigate a roundabout

It sounds simple, unless you’re not expecting it. The city put up signs warning drivers of the new roundabout lane changes. However, it appears a lot of people are missing them. Officials hope time will cure that problem.

“Just like with any construction detour, that first week or so is always the worst,” said Grand Rapids Traffic Safety Manager Chris Zull.

“I expect the people are going to get used to it in a couple of weeks here,” he added.

While drivers experience about the same number of crashes on the Wealthy-Jefferson roundabout as they did when it was a traditional four-way intersection, Zull says the newer configuration is still safer because of the kind of crashes.

In a roundabout, drivers are sideswiped; at intersections, vehicles are often broadsided.

“These crashes, being at the roundabout, are at slower speeds. So they’re not high severity, not a lot of injuries. Which is good, but (there are) still more crashes than we’d like to see,” added Zull.

City traffic safety experts say crashes aren’t the only reason for the change. Pedestrians, mostly Mary Free Bed employees using the crosswalks between Jefferson and LaFayette, had to dodge drivers confused by the previous two-lane roundabout.

“And so not only (do you) have one vehicle, but you have two vehicle drivers that are concerned about hitting each other, not aware of the pedestrians that are in the crosswalks,” added Rodriguez.

The city worked with Mary Free Bed and some of their employees to come up with a safer solution.

City traffic safety engineers think the new configuration will eventually eliminate dueling vehicles in the roundabout, which handles 42,000 vehicles a day.

**Correction: An earlier version of this article stated May Free Bed’s new building is seven stories tall. It is actually six stories. The error has been fixed.