Roundabout Refresher

I thought we had this whole round-about thing pretty well managed, but based on the abundance of email I’ve been getting lately I guess that’s just not true. That point was driven home recently by a comment from a reader. In an article about bike boxes, I wrote that we’ll learn how to navigate them “just like the roundabouts that most of us have figured out.”

In response, a reader commented, “Hah! I’m not sure if the author meant that as a joke or not, but you gave me a nice laugh on Monday morning.”

I’d like to claim that it was a well-crafted piece of comedy, but unfortunately I just overestimated how well we as drivers have adapted to roundabouts. With that in mind, here are my top six bits of wisdom on driving in roundabouts:

  • Yield to cars already in the roundabout. Think of it as a “first come, first served” policy for roundabout users. Wait for a gap in traffic to get in.
  • Don’t stop in a roundabout. Unless there is something or someone blocking your lane, once you’re in the roundabout, keep moving. Drivers who stop to let someone else into the roundabout are operating exactly opposite of how roundabouts are designed. (See previous point.)
  • Stay in your lane. On multi-lane roundabouts, choose your lane before you enter the roundabout. To go right, take the right lane. To go straight, either lane will work. To go left or do a u-turn, take the left lane. If you enter the roundabout in the wrong lane, don’t change lanes. Admit that you goofed up, exit the roundabout at one of the options for your lane, find a safe place to turn around and try again. If you entered in the left lane but wanted to turn right, stay in the roundabout for a full rotation and take your exit.
  • Stay away from trucks and oversize vehicles. Big trucks with trailers don’t fit in one lane of a roundabout. They’re allowed to take up as much space as they need to get through. In a multi-lane roundabout, if you enter at the same time as a truck or try to pass a truck, you might get squished into the central island.
  • Watch for pedestrians. Crosswalks at roundabouts are a little different from standard intersections. They’re located further from the intersection than you may be used to, and they have refuge islands between the lanes. Pay attention to where people are and yield the right-of-way to anyone in or entering the crosswalks on your way into and out of the roundabout.
  • Signal on the way out. Now you know where I stand on the signal/no-signal issue. There is some debate over whether signaling is required upon leaving a roundabout. The Washington Department of Transportation roundabout instructions specify that drivers should signal when leaving a roundabout. The Washington Driver Guide section on roundabouts doesn’t mention signaling. The driver guide also doesn’t mention staying in your lane or avoiding trucks so I’d suggest that the driver guide is incomplete on the topic and shouldn’t be the final answer. Instead, let’s consider state law: The Revised Code of Washington is clear that “No person shall turn a vehicle or move right or left upon a roadway . . . without giving an appropriate signal.” With a statement like that in the law, how can anyone debate against signaling in a roundabout? I think the conflict stems from a requirement in the law to signal at least 100 feet before making a turn. That’s hard to do, and if you stuck to the full 100 feet while in a roundabout, it could cause more confusion than it solves. The last update to this law was in 1975, so it’s probably time to add a section on roundabouts to make it current. Meanwhile, I’d recommend signaling before leaving the roundabout. Required or not (and I think it is*), by giving other drivers as much information as possible about your intended direction you reduce the chance of a crash and improve the flow of traffic.

If we can consistently do these six things when driving through a roundabout I might actually be able to say that we’ve learned how to navigate roundabouts in a future article without readers thinking I’m making a joke.


*Not to be intended as legal counsel. For that, call an attorney. Or two. They may not all agree on this point either.



  1. About signaling when making a turn FROM a roundabout — I’ve seen conflicting instruction as to which direction your signal should indicate. For example, common sense says if you are going to make a left turn, you activate your left turn signal, so that oncoming drivers know you are going to cross their intended path. Correct?

  2. The intersection at Franklin and Carolina streets is small. The roundabout there seems small. If heading south on Franklin and taking a left turn on Carolina, is it necessary to use that roundabout? Many of us drivers do not but we may be breaking the law. Your interpretation please.
    Peg Bargs

  3. If you need this amount of instruction, plus a video timing in at 3:41, roundabouts are not the best form of traffic management. Why they have been embraced here so strongly when the rest of the country has removed them is baffling. And, travelers from outside the area are not going to read up on them before they come here.

  4. Roundabouts made sense to me when I mentally “flattened it
    out” into the shape of a normal
    4-way intersection with 2 lanes.
    All the same rules of the road
    still apply.

  5. Thanks for the refresher article on roundabouts. Having driven in other parts of the world where they are quite common, I don’t understand the neophobia surrounding them here.
    My pet peeves about our drivers and roundabouts:
    1. Stopping before entering the roundabout even though there is no other traffic in the roundabout or nearby – these are the tentative people who never seem to be able to get going no matter what their mode of locomotion.
    2. Failing to yield to traffic already in the roundabout – thinking you will just squeeze in where there really isn’t time or room.
    3. Failure to signal your intentions to leave the roundabout – this last leads to some of the instances of #2 and causes unnecessary slowdowns to others decisions to enter the roundabout next to your exit.
    4. Non-drivers whose car is being apparently controlled by the driver of the car in front of them – never look, just follow the car in front.

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