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How to Use a Roundabout

From reducing crashes to improving the environment, roundabouts can do a lot of good, but navigating them can be tricky.

how to use a roundabout

SR 548 Roundabout - Aerial" by WSDOT is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Roundabouts – some people like them, many people don’t. No matter how you feel about these roadway features, you should get used to them, as they’re increasingly becoming the modus operandi of American intersections. There are more than 7,000 roundabouts in the U.S., including hundreds scattered across the Northeast, according to transportation engineering firm Kittelson & Associates.

Why the switch? Proponents say roundabouts have safety, environmental and financial advantages over traffic signals and stop signs. With that in mind, it’s likely that these road features will only become more common.

But navigating can be a tricky feat, especially if you’re not accustomed to them. Here’s everything you need to know about how to use a roundabout safely.

What Is a Roundabout?

A roundabout is a circular intersection in which vehicles travel counterclockwise (in the U.S.) with entering traffic yielding the right-of-way to circulating traffic.

These roadways have been popular overseas, particularly in Europe, for decades. However, they have only recently been widely adopted here in the U.S. The reluctance can likely be attributed to the negative response American drivers had with traffic circles and rotaries built in the first half of the 20th century. These features were similar to roundabouts but had design flaws. The connecting rounds entered the circle at abrupt right angles and in many cases vehicles within the central circle had to yield to those entering. These factors led to safety and traffic issues.

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The Benefits of Roundabouts

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than half of all fatal and injury-causing car crashes occur at or near an intersection. Studies of intersections have shown that converting traffic signals or stop signs to roundabouts can reduce all crashes by nearly 50% and injury crashes by up to 80%.

Roundabouts have two significant advantages over traffic signals and stop signs: They are safer and create less traffic. There are several design elements that make roundabouts a safer option. When a vehicle approaches a roundabout, the driver is forced to slow down in order to navigate the turn of the circle. Roughly one-quarter of all traffic fatalities are speeding-related. A slower car is a safer car.

Additionally, roundabouts nearly eliminate the chance of any of the most severe types of crashes – right-angle, left-turn and head-on collisions – from occurring. Most car crashes (including a vast majority or fatal crashes) involve vehicles traveling in different directions.

On the topic of traffic direction, since cars all move in the same direction in a roundabout, the stop-and-go nature of traffic flow that occurs at traffic signals and stop signs is significantly reduced. Research has proven that traffic flow improves after roundabouts have replaced traditional intersections. As an added bonus, roundabouts create less idling, which means fewer vehicle emissions (good for the environment) and less fuel consumption (good for your wallet).

The Dangers of Roundabouts

Although roundabouts are considered the safer intersection option, they can be potentially hazardous to some drivers, particularly older drivers.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, “The single greatest concern in accommodating older road users, both drivers and pedestrians, is the ability of these persons to safely maneuver through intersections.” The FHA also states older drivers may have difficulty in situations involving complex speed-distance judgments under time constraints, and are much more likely to be involved in crashes where the drivers were either traveling too fast for the curve or were surprised by the curved alignment. This all adds up to roundabouts being a significant safety risk for older drivers.

Roundabout Rules

How to Use a Roundabout

In theory, roundabouts are simple to understand, but they can be difficult to navigate if you’re unfamiliar. Upon approaching the intersection, a vehicle yields to traffic already within the roundabout. Vehicles already in the roundabout have the right of way. When there is a safe amount of space, you can enter. Remember, a yield sign is not a stop sign – if there are no cars in the roundabout, look around for pedestrians and bicyclists and proceed in.

Once in the roundabout, circle the road until you reach your desired exit. If you want to turn right, take the first exit; straight, the second; left, the third; and a U-turn, the fourth.

When there’s only one lane, it’s fairly straightforward. Things can get confusing in a multilane roundabout. In this scenario, the vehicle should be in the right lane to turn right or go straight, and in the left lane to go straight, turn left or make a U-turn. There will usually be signs leading up to the roundabout indicating which lane to occupy. Also remember to use your turn signal.

How do you feel about roundabouts? Do you find them confusing? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Mar F.

    In general I like them as not having to complete a full stop or wait for the light to turn green when there is NO other traffic. When it is full or very busy I don’t like them especially when I’m not sure of when my exit will be coming up to be in the correct lane.

  • Sinikka M.

    Traffic circles, roundabouts and rotaries are not tricky, in Watford England there is a magic roundabout, many small roundabouts in a large roundabout, that scares some people. We need traffic cameras and drivers will be on their best behavior.

  • Susan A.

    There’s one near us that has a huge volume of traffic in the morning and afternoon rush hours. Roads in the main directions get backed up, with lots of stop and go traffic. Getting into the roundabout is difficult. What can be done about this? My opinion is that the main road needs a separate lane for traffic going straight through, with no lights or turns. That would keep these out of the roundabout.

  • ralph d.

    terrible to navigate and traffic backs up when it didn’t before. There is a hill right after the roundabout and trucks have to come to almost a complete stop entering the roundabout then have to creep up the hill. Before they could quickly climb the hill

  • I traveled to Cape Cod once a month for years. I find that the drivers IN the roundabout drive quickly so no one can get in front of them! so then what does one do?

  • Anthony L.

    I love them but wish they didn’t exist because so many people don’t understand how to use them & make driving situations in the roundabout very dangerous. People who know exactly how to operate one seem to think everyone else does also. Tourist who aren’t used to them at all, especially when they are following a GPS, are a huge hazard.

  • Rich W.

    Roundabouts are the worst things to exist they are putting them all over Sarasota FL and their full of broken taillights and pieces of bumpers , to confusing to most ????

  • Can AAA lobby to have demonstration of navigating a roundabout safely be part of a driver’s test wherever possible? Roundabouts are so sensible but people’s alarm about them is unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

  • Bruce P.

    We in the bicycle safety wing of traffic management are still wondering how to encourage automobile drivers to yield appropriate right of way to bicycles in the roundabout. Drivers to not see what they are not looking for. Strobe lights? Paint guns? Not serious, but . . . .

  • Sarah H.

    I’m the older driver they mention – it’s harder for me to judge the distance and speed of the cars already in the roundabout. As I get more accustomed to them that gets a bit easier. I’d still be very happy to stop at a stoplight intersection, though!


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