Driving: The USA Continues to Get it Wrong with Roundabouts

Background: Traffic circles — which are not the same thing as roundabouts — were first used in Roman times, for chariots.  ‘Modern roundabouts’ (the correct technical name) were first invented and put to use in Britain in the mid-1960s.  The USA stuck with traffic circles and in some states ‘rotaries’ (also different) until early in this new, 21st Century and even now some states are still in this hiatus.

Why build roundabouts at all?  The reasons are overwhelming.  Using roundabouts improves traffic flow on busy roads or at previously-complex intersections, and — even more importantly — they reduce the occurrence of fatal and serious-injury crashes by well over ninety percent because they prevent T-bone/right-angle collisions, which in turn are extremely dangerous to vehicle occupants.

An excellent ‘map’ sign, showing the layout and exit-destinations of a roundabout in Washington State. (This is clearly a roundabout where painting arrows on the road/pavement surface could be very confusing.) Copyright, 2015.

Situation:  Many of America’s new ‘modern roundabouts’ — and I have encountered a lot in the many states in which I have instructed defensive- and advanced driving — are usually well-designed, except for three extremely important factors.

What are the problems that concern us?

Another roundabout – this time Wixom, MI – but while the green ‘map’ sign is quite good, it would have been better further away from the roundabout to give drivers more time to view it and react in plenty of time. Copyright, 2014.

The first is the fact that most roundabouts, to this day, in the USA do not have what one might call ‘map’ or ‘layout’ signs on each approach, showing drivers well in advance the exit they will need from the roundabout, to reach their destination.  It is both arrogant and dangerous to assume that the drivers in any location are *all* local and all know which way to go at any intersection.  And given that many drivers are still very uncomfortable on roundabouts — at least in part because of our third concern, below — anything that risks a driver swerving late to the right to take the exit they need, or swerving left, equally late, to stay on the roundabout when they were preparing to exit from it, is clearly dangerous and can cause collisions.  Whether or not a collision results, such incidents serve to reinforce people’s fear of roundabouts and are therefore doubly damaging.

To drivers who are not used to roundabouts, a sudden mass of white markings and arrows on the road surface can be overwhelming. At this location, in Albany, NY, vehicles entering this roundabout from the left side of the photo and going three-quarters of the way round the roundabout to where the semi-tractor-trailer is at in this photo, actually have to cross a solid white line between lanes on the roundabout but vehicles are not meant to cross solid white lines! Very confusing and, we would suggest, unacceptable! Copyright, 2014

Our second concern follows from the first, in that the various lanes on American roundabouts do not always follow a set regime regarding which lane one should take for going left (properly described as being “more than half way around the roundabout”), going straight ahead, or turning right.  In the absence of the above-mentioned map/layout signs, drivers only discover at the very last moment, just a few yards before reaching the actual roundabout, which lane they need to be in, and when this happens, yet more frantic and potentially dangerous swerves take place, but this time as lane changes, rather than “exit or stay”.  Indeed, at roundabouts with more than four entry/exit roads — and quite rightly there are plenty like this — or at roundabouts where the entries and exits do not form a geometrically symmetrical crossroads, such last-minute lane allocations can be a real challenge.

Our third concern is that we know of no states that are advising people to use turn signals before entering roundabouts, during their journey through a roundabout (both ‘as applicable’) and always when leaving the roundabout.  This is part of a systemic failure throughout the USA to educate drivers accurately how to drive around roundabouts correctly, and this failure has left a significant proportion of American drivers disliking or afraid of roundabouts — an immensely undesirable scenario.

ADoNA Training

All ADoNA training courses include full best-practice, theoretical training on how to correctly use roundabouts for maximum safety, and as long as there are any roundabouts near the training location you select, there will be full practical training as well.   Courses

Improving the Overall Situation

Around 2006-07, my own concern about what can only be classed as flaws in the correct design and use of roundabouts in America triggered me to start communicating with officialdom at national, state and local levels about the situation, but not for the first time, we were met with what can only be described as a stone wall — a total unwillingness to even acknowledge, let alone reply to, our communications on this important matter.

In exasperation, we have to ask what is this failure to employ the best-practices developed by other countries that have been using modern roundabouts for more than 60 years?   Do the administrators concerned bizarrely believe that proven and refined safety techniques are of no importance here in America so they’re just going to do it their own way?  I’m sorry, but either way this is grossly unacceptable and certainly gives the impression of arrogance — a case of “re-inventing the wheel but very badly.”

Recommendations
  1. Use ‘map’/’layout’ signs on every approach to all except the most-localized of roundabouts, so that visiting or inexperienced drivers are not left floundering as to which lane to use on the approach to the roundabout or not knowing which exit they will need to take from the roundabout until they actually reach it.
  2. Develop a single (i.e. national!) policy for which lanes drivers should use at any roundabout in the USA — based on the geometry of any particular roundabout — “except where signs show otherwise.”  Such an over-arching rule would allow all American drivers the chance to understand the benefits and use of roundabouts, and should be in every state’s drivers’ manual, with exactly the same wording so that there can be no drift away from its exact meaning.
  3. Teach drivers when and where to signal, on the approach, the transit through and the exit from any and every roundabout.  It is a remarkably easy rule to learn.  Failure to teach drivers this is to treat them like idiots, and if you treat drivers like idiots, they will all drive like idiots!
  4. Teach drivers that when approaching the yield line at the entrance to any roundabout, that they should be: “Prepared and able to stop but ready to keep going, if it is legal and safe to do so.”

It is a sad but inescapable and relevant fact that the USA is effectively the worst-performing developed nation in the world when it comes to road safety and reducing an excessively high number of road deaths each year.  With a death-rate more than four-times worse than the leading nations of Sweden and the UK, America has a very long way to go to improve its highway safety to even just an acceptable level.

Addendum : A article titled ‘The Simple Solution to One of America’s Most Dangerous Travel Problems’ was published by ATTN on June 24, 2017, and relates to Massachusetts.  It contains all of the above problems and also implies that roundabouts, ‘rotaries’ and ‘traffic circles’ are the same thing when they are certainly not.

Eddie Wren, CEO/Chief Instructor — Advanced Drivers of North America

Also see our page: More on Roundabouts

May 2017

Author: EddieWren

Eddie Wren is the CEO and Chief Instructor at Advanced Drivers of North America. His driver safety background is given at: http://www.advanceddrivers.com/ceochief-instructors-resumecvbio/

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