Americans tend to be fond of stop signs and electric traffic lights—after all, we invented them—and we’ve installed them by the millions, leaving other setups, such as roundabouts, to the rest of the world.
But roundabouts are actually safer and more efficient than traditional intersections, so it’s no surprise the U.S. is (finally) coming around to them. A 2001 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that fatal crashes decreased by 89% at intersections where stop signs and traffic signals were replaced by roundabouts, and a 2014 study in Minnesota saw similar results. “The most deadly type of crash is the right-angle crash,” explains Derek Leuer, a traffic safety engineer at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “At roundabouts, it is nearly impossible for a right-angle crash to occur.”
If your city or town is going in circles, but you haven’t seen a roundabout since your driver’s ed handbook, here’s a refresher on how to mind your manners while making your way around.
Recognize the roundabout
These tips apply to modern roundabouts, which are different from traffic circles (also known as rotaries) and traffic calming circles. Traffic circles have a very large center island and are entered in a straight line; traffic calming circles have a small center island and are mostly used instead of four-way stops to slow traffic in residential neighborhoods. Roundabouts are medium-sized, entered on a gentle curve and can be used at a variety of intersections.
Know when to yield
When entering a roundabout, yield to traffic already in the circle and merge when it is safe. When exiting, remember to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks (it’s not just the polite thing to do, it’s the law).
Go slow but don’t stop
Part of what makes roundabouts safer and more efficient is that they’re designed to be navigated at a slow, steady pace, so don’t stop once you’ve entered the roundabout. If you miss your exit, simply circle around again. If you see or hear an emergency vehicle approaching, proceed to your exit and then pull over to let it pass.
Pick a lane and stay there
“The general practice is to stay in your lane once you enter the roundabout,” says Leuer. Single-lane roundabouts make it easy, with only one lane choice. For multi-lane roundabouts, a sign before the intersection should tell you where you want to be. Usually, drivers turning left should get in the left lane, those headed right should get in the right lane, and drivers going straight can do so from either lane, Leuer adds.
Stay off the center island
Large vehicles like semi trucks and buses may need a little more room to turn, so many modern roundabouts are designed with a raised section of concrete around the center island known as a truck apron. If you’re driving a regular vehicle, you probably don’t need to use the apron to get your back wheels around the bend, so leave it free for those who do.
Give it time
Even if you find the roundabout strange at first or miss having a moment to fiddle with the radio at red lights, give the new intersection a chance. “Minnesota may have crossed a tipping point with roundabouts,” reports Leuer. “We are seeing more requests for roundabouts and citizens even asking why a roundabout isn’t being considered. They are becoming increasingly popular due to their safety, efficiency and economic benefits.”
Sometimes it’s what’s ahead that’s surprising; sometimes it’s what’s in the car that’s downright distracting. Read “Don’t Make Me Pull This Car Over!” to learn how kids and parents can have a pleasant ride together.