On September 18, 2018, Maine DOT published the following wording and roundabout design on their Facebook page, but unfortunately the layout is unsatisfactory:
“It’s National Roundabout Week! Roundabouts have proven to be far safer than traditional intersections, but some people are still unsure of how to navigate them…”
The problem is that, like most other states, Maine is apparently following the Federal Highways Administration [FHWA] ethos on roundabout construction but such guidelines deliberately ignore global best practices that have been developed over the fifty years in which the USA failed to build what are properly called “modern roundabouts.” Sadly, the result is roundabouts that can have multiple potential safety flaws, just like the one in this illustration, as posted by Maine DOT.
The problem is that roundabouts need to be versatile to allow for different sizes and the number of exits. As a result, drivers very much need to be taught a set of simple but universal guidelines that will keep them both safe and confident no matter how large or apparently complex any roundabout might be. [Naturally, we teach these on all applicable ADoNA defensive and advanced driver safety courses, throughout North America.] Yet it is the necessary education aspect that the FHWA has decided to omit, and the resultant exclusion from state drivers’ manuals of the best techniques will continue to perpetuate problems throughout the USA.
As with all so-called “turbo roundabouts,” the existing plan is that drivers are guided to enter in the correct lane for the exit they require but typically this only works if a driver already knows which exit they need because advanced layout signs are usually notable by their absence — a classic case of false economy. If the correct-lane-on-entry stage is achieved, any arrows painted on the road surface should then guide each driver to the required exit for their eventual destination. However, if for example a roundabout has more than four exits, something that roundabouts are particularly good for accomplishing, the lanes-and-arrows method can quickly become unworkable or unsafe, and that is the case in the example in this article.
Let’s look at the above diagram, in numbered sections, to see where problems can arise. All roundabouts are most easily described as though they were a clock face, so from whatever direction you are approaching it, the “bottom” of a layout diagram is always six o’clock, and the top is always twelve o’clock.
On the above diagram, we are going to start at the five o’clock position (bottom right) and work our way around in a counter-clockwise direction, obviously the same way as traffic circulates.
What we can see from the white arrows on the entrance to the roundabout, at the bottom of the image, is that drivers can use either the left-hand or center lane to enter the roundabout if they wish to go beyond the first available exit, However, it is what can happen after they pass that first exit that matters, because of the two lanes heading farther around. (For those who are into technicalities, there is another significant flaw shown in this section. To read what that is, please scroll down to the ‘Footnote’.)
Take notice of the curved arrow closest to the bottom edge of this section of the diagram. In accordance with the earlier, curved arrow [on the illustration of section 1], a driver might understandably have selected this lane if s/he wanted to use the same exit as the orange car and orange line (because at that point the orange car’s destination was not the first available exit. So NOW WHAT? Admittedly, a bit of cautious driving would probably save the day but this situation, which should never arise, has happened because:
- It is sometimes unwise and even unsafe to try to “turbo” a roundabout with more than four exits;
- Drivers in the USA are having ALL proper, best-practise roundabout advice withheld from them because somebody in Washington DC doesn’t know what s/he is doing and thinks they can re-invent a highly-proven method … but s/he failed!
Now see how both arrows near the left-hand side of the above image point for a straight-ahead exit (correctly) but the one in the left lane also points left for drivers who wish to keep on going around to later exits.
Here are those same arrows again, but now at the top right-hand corner of this illustration, and we can see that the driver of the red car is in the correct lane if s/he wants to take the next exit. But if the driver does not want the next exit and needs a later one, and if they are not very familiar with roundabouts, or are nervous, or don’t exactly know which exit they need until they reach it (which is a sadly common situation at badly signed roundabouts), which lane does s/he choose? The left one or the right? Another potentially dangerous situation is developing.
So here, let’s imagine that despite the red line. the driver of the red car is not going to use the “six o’clock” exit at the bottom of the picture but is going farther around the roundabout. Look at the road arrows. It is perfectly legitimate for the red car to be in either lane.
Now imagine that the driver of the red car is in the left-hand lane of the roundabout and is in close proximity to the blue vehicle (or any other vehicle that is in the right-hand lane), but the red car is heading for the exit that goes out of the right-hand side of this part of the image while the blue car is following its blue line….. Once again, NOW WHAT? The same highly undesirable situation has arisen as described under the image number 2, above.
The good news is that some American states are doing a better job of it, and an important part of this is to have a large, clear ‘map’ sign well before each entrance to any roundabout, showing the destinations of all the exits. This, in itself, makes lane selection utterly simple, as long as drivers have been taught correctly how to drive around ANY roundabout, and that education needs to include:
- Early and safe selection of the correct lane, before even reaching the roundabout, based upon an immensely simple rule;
- Signalling one’s intentions and direction, as applicable, before entering the roundabout;
- Signalling as appropriate while going around the roundabout;
- Giving a right-turn signal at the appropriate moment — not too early and not too late –to exit the roundabout;
- Safely carrying out a gradual lane change, if necessary, when heading for the correct exit.
If that list of bullet-points sounds complicated or excessive to you right now, don’t worry. It does to anyone before they learn it but it turns out to be utter simplicity.
On the whole, however, this very necessary education simply has not happened here in the USA and the regrettable outcome is that, having eventually decided to utilize modern roundabouts, which were first invented in Britain in the 1960s, the FHWA has inexplicably chosen to make things more confusing and more difficult for American drivers.
If, through anxiety, drivers simply stay in the right-hand lane all the way around, as many already do, then delays, anger and even collisions will result, and an excellent resource is being wasted.
To paraphrase Maine DOT’s words, the FHWA’s flawed decision makes it anything but surprising that many American drivers will remain “unsure of how to navigate [roundabouts],” and remain unnecessarily apprehensive about them, too.
We have several posts on different aspects of this topic. To easily locate them, simply go to the search box at the top, right-hand corner of any page on this website and search for roundabouts.
In the sectional illustration number one, the “straight ahead arrows under the orange line and the blue line cannot possibly be correct. (See the full image illustration above if you don’t understand why.) The arrow in the middle lane, under the orange line, should be a three-way arrow showing left, straight and right. The arrow in the right-hand lane, under the blue line, should be a right-turn-only arrow because it is leading to a compulsory exit.
With the specific exception of the diagram published by Maine DOT, and smaller sections of that diagram, above, please be aware that this website is registered with the United States Copyright Office and that punitive legal action for damages may be taken against anyone who breaches our copyright. This, however, does not stop you from posting links to any of our pages, and you are welcome to do so.