Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Driving 101: The Roundabout

Growing up in Southern California, I had never even heard of roundabouts, much less seen one. Every intersection had a stop light or stop sign, but none had traffic circles. When I moved to the DC area a decade ago, I encountered some roundabouts, though the majority of them were some sort of Frankenstein hybrid of a traffic circle and stop light controlled intersection. Honestly, to say they were a mess is probably being far too generous. It is somewhat understandable then that people around DC struggle to navigate this variety of intersection. However, a few years ago I relocated to just outside of Boston and, likely due to the age of the city, roundabouts seem to be extremely popular everywhere around here. Unfortunately, despite their popularity, it seems that people still struggle to understand how to safely make it around one of these without nearly killing at least one other driver or at the very least pissing someone off.

So for the second installment of our Driving 101 series, we are going to cover the basic tips for safely navigating a standard traffic circle.
The reason that traffic circles are so popular is that, despite the somewhat counter-intuitive appearance of chaos, they are surprisingly efficient at keeping traffic flowing safely. When executed correctly, they not only move more traffic, but also serve as natural traffic calming as well as allow drivers to use less fuel since less time is spent idling. Don't believe me? Check out this video shot by the team at Mythbusters.


Now that we know a little bit more about them, let's look at what a driver can do to make negotiating roundabouts safer and less nerve-racking.

Image courtesy of the Washtenaw County Road Commission
Approaching the circle, keep your eyes scanning to the left. All traffic circles in the US operate in a counter-clockwise direction and thus any traffic approaching in the circle will be coming from your left. If no traffic is coming, then proceed into the circle with caution. If traffic is approaching or you see traffic already in the circle, then apply the brakes and begin to slow. By law, vehicles in the circle, including cyclists, have the right of way and you must yield to them. Keep in mind that this is a yield, which means you must give way, but does not mean you need to come to a complete stop before proceeding. In fact, stopping completely before proceeding, especially if there is a totally empty roundabout, is likely to upset the people coming up behind you.

Before you enter, keep in mind that the circle generally has as many lanes in it as there were lanes on the road you were on approaching the circle. That means that if the road you were driving on had two lanes in each direction, then there are two lanes in the circle, even if not marked. This helps separate and facilitate people who are making right turns or proceeding straight from people who are making left turns or making a u-turn. This means that you need to plan ahead and select your lane appropriately based on the direction of travel. The diagram above illustrates the recommended paths based on your lane selection entering the roundabout.

Once in the circle, it is important to keep moving with the traffic. Do not let the fact that the traffic never stops moving intimidate you because the beauty of a traffic circle is that if you miss your turn, you can just go around and try again. However, whatever you do, do not come to a complete stop in a traffic circle if traffic is moving because this just causes chaos and creates a dangerous situation for all drivers. Additionally, keep in mind that all other regular traffic rules apply so stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks, if they are present, is required, and turn signals should be used if you are not proceeding straight through.

And it really is as simple as that. Just remember to keep your eyes up and scanning for approaching traffic and that traffic already in the circle always has the right of way. With that in mind, there is no reason why negotiating a roundabout should be any more difficult than making a turn.

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Tags: automotive, driver education, Mythbusters, roundabout, streetstraffic, traffic circle