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.

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11 Responses to Roundabouts: Who has the right of way?

  1. raleyb says:

    Hey look kids- Big Ben.. Parliament
    Couldn’t resist- hat tip European Vacation of course

  2. tex2 says:

    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

  3. Rachelle says:

    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!

  4. Dustin says:

    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.

  5. Gary DeRoy says:

    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.

  6. Larry says:

    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.

  7. gary says:

    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.

  8. Amazing! You have the whole culture of drivers down to a science!

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