Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Riding the Roundabout

A lot of communities in the U.S. are now adopting the "Traffic Roundabout" for some of their intersections. I know very few people who actually like them, many more who are consternated by them, and many cyclists I know are just flat out terrified of them (probably with good reason - keep reading).

Modern roundabouts differ from most of the older style traffic circles some of us have encountered in that, in most cases, there are no stop signs or traffic lights to restrict traffic flow. Instead, the typical design is that traffic entering the roundabout is supposed to yield to traffic already in the roundabout, travel around the circle, then exit by right turn at their desired road.

A traffic roundabout in Akron, Ohio - once known as the rubber city,
and still the home of Goodyear Tire and Rubber.
In my area, the county engineers have been installing these roundabouts at some of the more deadly intersections because the design is supposed to be safer than traditional intersections. After using these newer designs for the past few years, I've found myself questioning whether the roundabouts actually reduce accidents, considering that I see so many drivers who are clueless about how to properly navigate the things. I routinely see drivers in the circle stopping for traffic entering it, while I see lots of cars entering the circles without slowing at all because they expect everyone else to wait for them. Talking to a traffic engineer, I've learned that the roundabouts don't necessarily reduce the number of collisions as much as they reduce the deadliness of them. Accidents that might otherwise have been high-speed head-on crashes become fender-benders.

That's great for cars, but what does that mean for cyclists? A collision that constitutes a "fender bender" in a car can still mean broken bones or even death for a cyclist. And I've read several studies that show a high rate of injuries for cyclists in roundabouts, even as the rates for drivers have fallen.

I don't know if I'm necessarily the absolute best authority on how to navigate traffic roundabouts, but I do have pretty regular experience with them and can give some tips for other cyclists.

One of the first things to remember is something I've already mentioned -- most drivers are CLUELESS about how to handle the roundabout - and clueless drivers are a major threat to themselves and other road users, but especially to cyclists. That means that YOU as the cyclist have to be the adult in the situation. Expect drivers to fail to yield. Expect them to not see you. Expect them to ignore your rights. Expect them to ignore your very existence. Ride accordingly. Once you come to grips with all of that, you are ready to approach the roundabout.

Next, it's helpful to understand some of the more common types of collisions between drivers and cyclists that occur in roundabouts. All three of these scenarios can be scary -- but the threat can be reduced considerably by doing these things: Be Assertive. Take the Lane. Signal your intent.

One of the more common collisions is what in a "normal" intersection would be called a "right-hook" scenario. The driver passes the cyclist either in the approach to the roundabout, or perhaps in the roundabout itself -- then they exit the roundabout, either turning right into, or directly in front of the cyclist. Remember that to most drivers, once they pass a cyclist and he is no longer in their forward view, that cyclist ceases to exist, even if he is still directly outside the driver's passenger side (or worse, in the so-called blind spot).

Staying to the right side of the road is not a good position when approaching a roundabout. My policy is to take the lane, even on the approach. About 20 - 30 yards before the roundabout, I look back over my shoulder for cars approaching from behind, and if it's clear, I signal and move into the middle of the lane. Are you a rear-view-mirror user? You should still look over your shoulder and make eye contact with drivers behind you. The very act of looking back gives the drivers a clue to your intent. And don't worry that you are impeding traffic -- they are supposed to be slowing for the roundabout anyhow. Taking the lane discourages drivers from attempting to pass, and passing can be deadly for the cyclist for the reasons already mentioned. Hold your middle-of-the-lane position through the roundabout. Only after you exit the circle should you move back to the right side of the lane.
If a driver does come up on your left, and it seems that they are starting to turn into you or into your path, the evasive maneuver is the same as in other right-hook situations -- brake and try to make the turn with the car if at all possible. And yell - loudly.

Another common collision stems from drivers who simply fail to yield when entering the roundabout, hitting a cyclist who is already traveling in the circle. Often, the driver is looking past the cyclist, looking for cars that might be approaching from their left side.

Again, taking the lane is important, as it keeps you more in the line of sight of the driver entering the roundabout. I like to be in the middle of the lane, or even slightly left, as it keeps me more visible, but also gives me slightly more reaction time if the driver fails to yield. (If necessary, one could possibly make an evasive maneuver into the apron around the center of the circle). Try to make eye contact with the driver approaching the roundabout. Call out loudly if you have any doubts that they see you. I've even found that pointing right at them sometimes helps catch their attention. If you are able to signal that you are exiting the circle, it's courteous to the driver at the next entrance, but not absolutely necessary, so do it only if it doesn't put you at risk.

Yet another collision can happen on the approach to the roundabout, just prior to entering the circle. A cyclist slows or stops to yield to a vehicle in the circle, then gets hit from behind by another car trying to enter the roundabout. Typically, the driver is looking to their left for approaching traffic, and fails to see the cyclist slowing or stopping in front of them. The previous two situations are more common though.

A more timid cyclist might think that staying to the right and letting the car in back go past would be safer, but as already mentioned, letting drivers pass in this situation presents other risks that are actually more common. My policy is to deal with the car in back first. Look back, make sure they see you, signal, and move into the lane. Next, get a good look at cars that are in the circle and evaluate whether or not you'll need to yield to them. Signal that you are slowing (hand down, palm back). Another look back will help you determine if the car in back is also slowing or stopping. The good news is that you've already taken steps to make yourself conspicuous, so they're probably following your lead.

What if the car in back isn't stopping? You've done a lot to minimize that likelihood, but if it happens, that's a real tricky spot since you are basically between them and the car approaching from the left in the circle. Leave yourself an out. You might be able to make a quick dive to right, on the edge of the circle, and try to stay to the shoulder. Chances are that the car in the circle is probably not hugging the right shoulder, especially if they see another car making a move into their path. 
Be prepared to exit the circle prematurely if necessary. It's not ideal but exit strategies can be necessary in almost any type of traffic situation.
By the way - while all my pictures depict the "single-lane" type of roundabout, one may also find a "multi-lane" roundabout, with separate lanes for those traveling around the circle and for those who are exiting it. One also has to position themselves properly in the correct lane, and that can mean planning ahead, or possibly doing some lane changes within the circle. That can add some extra stress, but for the most part, the same basic principles apply -- take the lane, make yourself visible, and signal your intentions.

Going right, straight, or continuing around the circle for a left turn can mean choosing the correct lane. The same basic principles apply, but if at all possible it's generally best to be in the proper lane before entering the roundabout. If a multi-lane roundabout is really dodgy, with a lot of traffic moving too fast for comfort, one does usually have the option to dismount and cross on foot at the crosswalks. As a cyclist that can feel humiliating, but one needs to do what they're most comfortable with. (graphics from wsdot)

In those various scenarios, I mention having some evasive maneuvers or escape plans -- again, when riding with traffic, it's often necessary to be prepared like that, but I don't think it's any more likely in roundabouts than in other types of intersections. I wouldn't want to leave readers with the impression that it's any more dangerous in the roundabout. And keep in mind that I encounter a couple of these types of intersections every day on my commute to work, and I've never had to take drastic evasive steps. The good news is that in most cases, if you are assertive, take the lane, and signal your intent, you can minimize a lot of the potential dangers to the point that roundabouts might actually live up to the promises of improved safety -- for cyclists as well as drivers.


  1. Great advice. I would agree that in my experience if roundabout do one thing they slow down cars. One of the annoyances of roundabouts in the US at least in St.George, UT. Is that they plant bushes in the middle, such that you can't see traffic on the other side.

    1. The purpose of those plants is to reduce headlight glare from the other side, but not to be a hard obstruction in case some vehicle goes through it. Plus growing things work to offset carbon dioxide.

  2. We have a lot of these in Belgium. They suck, excuse my french, for cyclists. People right hook us all the time. Especially in those with a cycling lane on the outside, people just don't look that way.

    But they do save lives...automobilists lives.

    1. I believe that having a bike lane around the outside would have to put cyclists in the worst possible position.

    2. Yeah me too. In belgium they are often seperated from the road like a sidewalk would be, wich is slightly better but barely so: the drivers cut you a the point you cross the exits.

  3. I rode my bike a lot in Massachusetts in the 70s and never had a problem with rotaries.
    Do not understand the fuss.
    I love French ronds-points as a motorist as I can sometimes hit 100KPH going thru them.

  4. A huge part of the problem in the U.S. is the pathetic lack of proper drivers' training and testing. New rotaries are becoming more numerous in our area (NE Illinois) but there is one nearby that has been in service for many years along a major 4 lane road and the locals still haven't learnt to negotiate it. Rush hours there are nightmarish.

  5. England seems to be home of the roundabout, I have to navigate 7 on my commute. I quite like them, just follow the advice given here and it's fine. A bit of speed won't hurt either

  6. Mike W. hits the nail squarely -- the trouble with roundabouts and with so many other traffic conditions is drivers who are clueless. If drivers use roundabouts (and stop signs and yellow lights, and blinkers for lane changes) properly, IME they do work.

    I got used to roundabouts in Nairobi as a boy (jokingly called "kipleftis" in right-hand-drive Kenya) and don't recall any particularly close calls on a bicycle, as I certainly do at red light or stopsign intersections. I recall a slight downgrade on 6-lane Kenyatta Avenue heading toward "town", the city center. I'd spin out my top gear, merge into the middle and, traffic allowing, into the outside (rightmost) lane, and cut through the traffic circle on the inside, merging again to the outside as I exited. I could usually keep ahead of the DKWs, Ford Anglias, VWs, and Peugeot 404s until safely back on the left on the far side of the intersection.

    Here in Albuquerque, the traffic engineers are experimenting with roundabouts, and yes indeed, people are still clueless -- but not any longer, as 10 or so years ago, when drivers would try to circle the rotary counter clockwise. And of course, you have roundabouts with stop signs -- which seem to be useless redundancies.

    But I do believe that, as drivers get used to them, they will work better than traffic lights -- fewer accidents from drivers trying to beat the yellows.

    1. >>"when drivers would try to circle the rotary counter clockwise"

      When I read this yesterday, I thought "I've seen some horrible stuff in our roundabouts, but that's just absurd."

      Aaaand today I say someone cut through a roundabout the wrong way.

  7. I have ridden what is possibly the roundabout to end all roundabouts: L'Etoile in Paris. It's the one with the Arc de Triomphe, where the Tour ends.

    The first time I rode it, I had practically no experience with roundabouts. But I did what you prescribe: I took my lane. It wasn't bad. In fact, I rather liked it. At least the French drivers weren't fazed by a cyclist.

  8. There are many of the multilane variety in DC, moving at quite a clip. They are challenging for drivers let alone cyclists, due to the many diagonal streets and unpredictable street parking, and at dark drive times in winter they are unnerving to all but longtime residents. I have never tried one as a cyclist. For the center-lane crossovers, you would really have to commit in terms of speed and visibility. A leap of faith or a foolhardy risk, like much in DC.

    1. I can easily imagine a roundabout like that as being very intimidating to a cyclist.

  9. In the UK, they are very common, but less common is the 'Hamburger Junction' type of roundabout. Do a google search for 'hamburger junction A31' to see the one near us.

    I live just off the top right of this one: https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=hamburger+junction+a31&start=20&sa=N&espv=2&biw=1680&bih=846&tbm=isch&imgil=qYcCvoqVeg1aoM%253A%253BVIovHbgVaKiqKM%253Bhttp%25253A%25252F%25252Fwww.bbc.co.uk%25252Fnews%25252Fuk-england-dorset-14973203&source=iu&pf=m&fir=qYcCvoqVeg1aoM%253A%252CVIovHbgVaKiqKM%252C_&usg=__hKCU_Dwl-jwDYJF6B5i9pvgCDcE%3D&ved=0ahUKEwj7o_CTnJbNAhXlA8AKHbYsAg44FBDKNwgm&ei=wOZWV_vDE-WHgAa22Yhw#imgrc=ku4I4nJwoPpJhM%3A

    Peter M.