Roundabouts: Who has the right of way?

Roundabouts in America: Who has the right-of-way?

My wife is French and close to half of all roundabouts in the world are on French roads, so we were pleasantly surprised to see them popping up on the American landscape, especially now in Maryland and Virginia.  The problem is a total lack of understanding for most of us American drivers.  When approaching a stop sign or a yield sign there are only three very simple and obvious rules to consider.

1. The automobile already inside the intersection (or circle) has the right of way

2. The automobile who reaches the yield sign first has the first right to enter the intersection (or circle).

3. And finally if two autos arrive at the yield sign at the same time, the automobile on the right should enter first.

That’s it.  But wow, with the advent of roundabouts what an assortment of issues we Americans can raise to complicate the process.  For your convenience, here is a list of the newly invented American rules that many drivers ignorantly obey.

1. The stopper.  This driver stops dead at the yield sign.  It is not only a stop sign it is a “super duper power stop sign.”  This driver will wait until all other automobiles in view have arrived at the roundabout and passed through it.  The approaching car may be a half a mile away but the parked “stopper” will patiently wait.  Everybody has the right away but them.  A car may be in a train of twenty, meaning that there is no way that the second car could have reached the yield sign ahead of “the stopper” but he will let all twenty cars race through.  Only when there is not another car in sight will “the stopper” timidly enter the intersection or roundabout and find a way on to his destination.  It can be pretty frustrating to be behind a stopper when you are on your way to the airport.

2. The speedster.  This driver believes that he or she has the right of way because of their speed.  They roar confidently toward the intersection or  roundabout, ignoring all other drivers approaching from all other sides, believing that the yield sign does not apply to them.

I actually had a driver explain this to me.  I had slowly rolled into the roundabout when a car racing in from my left laid on the horn. How dare I pull in ahead of him?  He kept laying on the horn so I stopped to let him pull up beside me and lecture me.  “You almost caused an accident,” he said, “I almost hit you.  I had the right away (sic,) why did you pull in front of me?”

Now, if he had hit me, it would have clearly been his fault.  He would have hit me from behind.  So what was his reasoning?  “How could you have had the right of way if I had pulled in front of you?” I asked.  “Obviously I was at the intersection before you.  And if you had hit me from behind it would have been your fault.”

“Well, I was going faster,” he said.  And that explained it.

3. The train car.  This driver believes that he or she inherits the rights of the driver before them.  It’s like this.  My mom and pop were Methodists and they will go to heaven, so I will go to heaven too.  This driver wants us to believe that he or she is part of a train and the rights of the first car, which approached the roundabout properly, apply to every successive car that follows, as long as they maintain the same speed and tail gate closely behind.  The car to their right, which has obviously arrived at the yield sign before them, has to wait because the train car has invoked a “group privilege.”

Now, you may think that rules are rules and if you just obey them and end up in an accident in a roundabout the local sheriff or highway patrol will sort it out and protect you.  They will make sure the stoppers, speedsters and train cars get ticketed and you get rewarded for knowing the rules and doing it right.  Well, think again.

I recently approached a Virginia roundabout behind one of the local sheriff’s deputies.  And to my utter shock, he was “a stopper.”  The poor confused soul arrived at the roundabout like his first day at school.  He just parked and idled as every car within shouting distance approached the roundabout from all different directions and raced through.  There was a long train and every conceivable combination.  True to the dictum of “the stopper” he waited patiently until all these traffic violators were gone and when there were no more cars in sight and no one left to break the law or confuse our intrepid cop, he cautiously rolled into the roundabout.

If the sheriff’s deputy doesn’t know the rules, how can we expect anyone else to know?

Which brings me to this final point.  Just like the word “ain’t” forced its way into the English dictionary, so the roundabout train has become today’s rule of law.  If you arrive at the same time at a four way stop the person on the right has the right away.  But the rules of the roundabout are now clearly the opposite.  The fast moving train arriving from the left is boss.

Published by Doug Wead

Doug Wead is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, Game of Thorns, is about the Trump-Clinton 2016 election. He served as an adviser to two American presidents and was a special assistant to the president in the George H.W. Bush White House.

35 thoughts on “Roundabouts: Who has the right of way?

    1. Funny, but not an American modern roundabout.
      Many people confuse other and older styles of circular intersections with modern roundabouts. East coast rotaries, large multi-lane traffic circles (Arc D’Triomphe, Dupont Circle), and small neighborhood traffic circles are not modern roundabouts. If you want to see the difference between a traffic circle, a rotary (UK roundabout) and a modern roundabout (UK continental roundabout), go to to see pictures. And here’s another site that shows the difference between an older rotary and a modern roundabout:

  1. The French have the largest number of roundabouts in the world? Why would we even WANT to have ANY roundabouts if the French have so many?

    That’s like asking, “How many French soldiers does it take to defend Paris?” Answer: Nobody knows, they have never done it! LOL

  2. Wow! I just had all three happen to me at once tonight. When I went on to check to make sure my knowledge was correct about roundabouts I discovered I was right and that I had experienced the stopper to the right of me who had obviously hit the yield sign first, I flickered the lights at them to tell them to go, then as I was about to enter the person to the left who got to the yield sign after me sped through and honked at me and the car right behind the speedster followed suit! Theres your train car! Thanks for the laugh!

  3. I have two roundabouts on my main road small ones an you explained it exactly. No one knows what to do on them, and I was confused so I looked it up to make sure. Thanks for this.

  4. This is great and it’s exactly how roundabouts should be driven. 10 years ago it was easy to find the rules stated the right way. These days, however, most states are saying the “modern” way to drive them is to yield to the train of cars coming from the left.
    Washington and Alaska are the same and their websites go to great extremes to not say who has the ROW. I talked to the head of the D.O.T. in one of the states and he even told me the car on the left always has the R.O.W. because it makes traffic flow better since that car is “up stream” and then neither car has to actually stop. When I suggested that the car on the Right was actually “up stream”. he suddenly didn’t have time to talk to me any more.
    I guess the red and green navigation lights on boats and planes will be the next things to go.
    It’s confusing and dangerous when some people are driving it differently.
    Even my own state of Maine has the driver manual stating that rotaries AND roundabouts are the same and yield to cars in, or entering, from the left. Previously, roundabouts were intersections and followed those rules which are different than rotaries. It probably changed because the person writing the manual didn’t know and asked someone else who gave the wrong answer. And now…. it’s the law.

  5. I was googling for reasons why people can’t seem to drive through roundabouts properly .Then I found this article.

    This was written in jest, right?

    Because the “stopper” and the “train” are the proper ways. There is no rule about being first to the yield sign. If you’re going to go all rogue and enter when you think it’s your turn and cut people off, you will get hurt and you will end up paying for damages.

  6. As I said in my comment above, there really is no difference now between a round-a-bout and a rotary in most states, but not all states have the same driving rules for them. They should just call them rotaries. It takes forever to get through them now, waiting for the train. I wish we had 4 way stops instead.

    1. The traffic engineers who specialize in this sort of thing would disagree with you. Single lane modern roundabouts rarely have a diameter larger than 120 feet. Two-lane modern roundabouts rarely get above 220 feet in diameter. Most older rotaries start out above 300 feet in diameter for the small ones.
      Modern roundabouts are the safest form of intersection in the world.
      The safety comes from the ‘slow and go’ operation instead of the ‘stop or go fast’ way a stop light works. The smaller size of properly designed modern roundabouts is what makes them safer and keeps speeds in the 20 mph (30 kph) range. This makes it much easier to avoid a crash or stop for pedestrians. It also means that if a crash happens the likelihood of injury is very low. Safety is the #1 reason there are over 3,200 modern roundabouts in the US today and many more on the way.

  7. Who gets to a modern roundabout first does not matter so much as who enters it first and where they are in relation to your entry point.
    At a modern roundabout four drivers entering from four directions can all enter at the same time. For a modern roundabout, entering drivers always yield to drivers approaching from the left.
    Neighborhood traffic circles are not modern roundabouts, and if they do not have stop control should be treated more like all-way stops.
    A correctly designed modern roundabout will not operate much above 20 mph.
    Platoons of autos entering a modern roundabout is not illegal, per se, but a driver entering immediately after another driver when a conflicting motorist is approaching from the left is a violation of the yield sign.
    Put another way, “if you entered a modern roundabout and got into a crash, and the dent is on your left fender, you are at fault” – Ed Waddell

  8. Modern roundabouts are yield on entry intersections. It is the same as if you approached a T intersection that only approached your road from the left. Everyone coming from the left has the right of way, no exceptions.

  9. I believe you are wrong. Several department of transportation web sites state there are 2 rules to follow. 1. Circulate counter clockwise and 2. Traffic on your LEFT has the right of way. Stream of traffic from your left…you cannot enter. Open on your left and a “stopper” ahead of you, ignore their ignorance and enter the circle. In an accident in a roundabout, the car which fails to yield to the left hand car already in the circle is at fault.

  10. thanks mr wead. I just got the lecture. this suv and I entered the circle at the same time he honk I waved. we talked, he believes the person on the left has the right of way I tried to explain how that makes no sense, i would not yield to someone not in the circle and since we both enter at the same time at the same speed it should be a none issue unless he was speeding. we both agreed we like traffic lights better.

  11. In a roundabout it doesn’t matter who gets to the yield sign 1st…you only have to yield to the person on your left only if they are already in the circle….you can yield and merge at the same time like any other merging situation where you yield. …theoretically if four cars all come to the roundabout simultaneously they can all enter the circle at the same time as long as they don’t interfere with anyone to their left…

  12. This might interest you. Wisconsin 2015 Assembly Bill 451, introduced yesterday, proposes to create this as state law:
    Section 2 . 346.18 (8) of the statutes is created to read:

    346.18 (8) Roundabout. (a) The operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle or combination of vehicles with a total length of not less than 40 feet or a total width of not less than 10 feet when approaching or driving through a roundabout at approximately the same time or so closely as to constitute a hazard of collision and, if necessary, shall reduce speed or stop in order to so yield.

    (b) If 2 vehicles or combinations of vehicles each having a total length of not less than 40 feet or a total width of not less than 10 feet approach or drive through a roundabout at approximately the same time or so closely as to constitute a hazard of collision, the operator of the vehicle or combination of vehicles on the right shall yield the right-of-way to the vehicle or combination of vehicles on the left and, if necessary, shall reduce speed or stop in order to so yield.

    1. Where does that leave semi trucks. Makes no sense especially as semis take longer to stop, longer to start moving and full size are I believe usually 53 ft. trailers.

  13. If someone is required to yield to vehicles already in the intersection circle, how can they not have to stop when there is a continuous line of vehicles already in the circle and entering it from 3 other directions. There is a point I believe when there is simply too much traffic for these to function without lights.

  14. Rule number three does not exist at all in the USA. Right-of-way goes to whomever is already in the circle. Order of arrival at the entrances doesn’t matter even the slightest.

    1. I know for a fact that in Maine, Washington, Alaska and Wisconsin if 2 drivers approach the roundabout at the same time the driver on the left has the right of way. It does specify the approach.
      In Maine, and most areas, they used to follow intersection rules where the driver on the Right had the right of way. Some states are still this way. In most states now, you drive roundabouts and rotaries the same way. There is no distinction between them.

    2. If someone is required to yield to vehicles already in the intersection circle, how can they not have to stop when there is a continuous line of vehicles already in the circle and entering it from 3 other directions.

  15. American drivers are too stupid, entitled and belligerent to manage roundabouts. There are a few where I drive in the Lansing, Michigan area, and each time I approach – what I’ve come to call, “Thunderdomes,” no one is behaving responsibly. Second to roundabout violations would be the maniacal jet into the middle turn lane. Everyone here seems to think it’s acceptable and safe to play chicken with middle turn lanes – all the while texting.
    I’ve never heard of cops cracking down on either traffic violation. They seem to only ticket high speed violators on the interstate…kinda chicken shit if you ask me.

  16. HOLY CR^%#,

    What a bunch of “know nothing” “know it all’s”!

    Go to your state’s Legal Statutes and look up the law!

    Our state does dictate that when 2 vehicles arrive at the intersection at the same time the ‘vehicle on the left MUST YIELD to the vehicle on the right’ aka the vehicle on the right has the “right of way” IT IS THE LAW in our State of Florida!

    It’s Not opinion, nor anyone’s thoughts … it is the Law in the Florida State Statutes

    2016 Florida Statutes



    Sub-chapter 316.121 Vehicles approaching or entering intersections.

    Section (2) When two vehicles enter an intersection from different highways at the same time the driver of the vehicle on the left shall yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right.

    It is the LAW !

    If someone tailgates another into the intersection they are in violation if there are other vehicles at the intersection before them waiting by yielding to the 1st vehicle in the chain/train but all others tailgating in that chain/train are BREAKING THE FLORIDA STATUTE TITLE XXIII Chapter 316 Sub-chapter 316.121 SECTION (2).

    Not opinion The LAW !

    I do not believe anyone until they show me the written Statute in their jurisdiction that is the governing LAW !

  17. I got ticketed for failure to yield but i did i was a stopper. I waited for the train of cars on my left go threw the roundabout. When it was clear i entered the roundabout. I just so happened a speeder that never yielded all four entrances had a yield sign. Ran into my car. I was told my the police officer that i was at fault because the people on the left always have the right of way.

  18. I live in a small city in Missouri that has put in three roundabouts in the last coupled of years and the number one rule for 95% of drivers who use them is the train!! Drives me crazy!! They only find out they’re at fault after they’ve had an accident!!

  19. There are not three simple rules. There is only one simple rule: yield to traffic coming from your left (in countries that drive on the right). In your near miss example, you would clearly have been at fault.

  20. First of all, circles or “roundabouts “did not just start popping up in America! I have been driving for 40 years now, and we always had circles in New Jersey! In fact, they have started to do away with a lot of the circles and New Jersey! It just seems that people do not read member what they learned before they were licensed drivers! The driving manual clearly stated that vehicles on the circle have the right of way! It’s that simple! If you aren’t going to enter a circle, you must stop and yield to the traffic on the circle until it is safe to enter! What don’t drivers understand about that?

  21. Doug wrote:
    “And finally if two autos arrive at the yield sign at the same time, the automobile on the right should enter first.”

    That is NOT the rule in WI. The roundabouts are signed “Yield to the Left.” That makes no sense since at a 4-way intersection one yields to the right if arriving at the same time. But that is what the signage says.

    1. Roundabouts are completely different than a cross intersection. There is enough designed separation in a roundabout for all cars to enter at the same time. The right of way only applies to who is in the circle vs the one about to enter. You cannot interfiere with the car in the circle when you enter, period. You can enter only when you have a safe clear opening. This may involve timing your entry on your part. It’s a sort of sycronized driving. Bad drivers mess this up every time.

      1. Jon, I know this has been covered and buried in this long thread, but, “In the Beginning” roundabouts followed the same rules as intersections. The idea was that you could have a 4-way intersection but traffic would move faster because nobody would (necessarily) have to stop and each direction took it’s turn. The car on the right is upstream from the car on the left so if they arrive at the roundabout at the same time and the car on the right goes first, nobody has to come to a stop. If the car on the left goes first, the car on the right has to come to a complete stop. That defeats the purpose of a roundabout. It’s the way I learned to drive them in Drivers Ed in the 60’s. They even had a saying to remember it, “the car on the Right has the Right of way”. In the early 2000’s, my daughter even learned it the same way when she had Drivers Ed. But now, in my state, they are driven with the driver on the left having the right of way. Other states have also made the change. It’s not because it’s better, but it’s because some kid just out of high school is working for the state writing the manuals and doesn’t know the way it should be done (most people don’t). He or she asks someone else who doesn’t know and finally they guess that the usual “car on the left” must be right. In other words, we drive roundabouts the wrong way because of ignorance. It’s too bad, too, because they’re engineered to work when driven the right way and they work much better that way.

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