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You're using roundabouts completely wrong... but keep doing it

Think you’re using a roundabout correctly? Well, there’s an almost a 100 per cent chance you’re not. But don't worry, everybody’s doing it wrong and that’s why it works.

We all probably think we know the rules to roundabouts, but we’re breaking them daily without realising it. The thing is, if some of us started to follow the correct rules of roundabouts the results could be catastrophic.

The first roundabouts appeared in Britain and New York in the early 1900s but the great-great grandmother of them all is the circular junction at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris with its 12 intersecting roads gifted by Napoleon to road users in 1806.

The traffic around the Arc de Triomphe is such a chaotic free-for-all car cage fight that in the time you’ve read this sentence, several accidents have probably occurred, and because nobody knows who’s really at fault, insurance policies don’t fully cover motorists around the landmark.

Elsewhere, roundabouts - the smaller, properly organised ones like you find in Australia - have proven to reduce accidents and keep traffic flowing compared to intersections with stop signs or traffic lights. Roundabouts are also cheaper to install than junctions with traffic lights and you’ll never need somebody to direct traffic if the power goes out.

What are we doing wrong, then, when it comes to using them? Everything. I’ll show you.

The smaller, properly organised roundabouts have proven to reduce accidents and keep traffic flowing. (Image: Richard Berry)

Okay, you drive up to a roundabout but see another vehicle approaching from your right. Even though you’ve arrived at the roundabout first, what do you do?  You let them go through first. Of course you do, we all do. Give way to your right at a roundabout is the rule, isn’t it? No, actually that’s not the rule.

The road rules throughout Australia state that all vehicles approaching a roundabout must give way only to the other vehicles already in the roundabout, not cars coming down the road on your right. 

To quote Transport for NSW’s Road User handbook (but this applies throughout Australia, too): 

Roundabouts are cheaper to install than junctions with traffic lights. (Image: Richard Berry)

“When you approach a roundabout, you must slow down or stop to give way to all vehicles already in the roundabout. This means giving way to vehicles already in the roundabout on your right, and vehicles that have entered the roundabout from your left or from directly opposite you.”

Basically, give way to everybody already in the roundabout.

In reality we all tend to give way to the vehicles approaching the roundabout on our right, even if we’ve arrived at the roundabout first. In my 30 years of driving I’ve never seen a roundabout used any other way. And it works, because everybody is following the same rule - even if it’s not the correct rule. 

We all probably think we know the rules to roundabouts, but we’re breaking them daily without realising it. (Image: Richard Berry)

As an experiment I decided to follow the correct rules. I stopped at a roundabout to give way to those already driving around it but went ahead of the bloke approaching from my right and was almost T-boned by him and his Navara travelling at about 50km/h. The look he gave me was one of horror mixed with rage and disbelief. I don’t recommend you try the same stunt just because you’d be in the right. 

As for the correct rule and giving way only to vehicles already on the roundabout, this is hardly adhered to, at all. If anything, when the roundabout is large enough, we’ll try to duck in quickly ahead of other cars.

What about indicators? This is one we are pretty good at generally. The rules throughout Australia say motorists should use the left indicator for leaving the roundabout, but the states differ in whether you should have a blinker on as you’re in the roundabout. Check your state or territory's rules just to be sure.

Roundabouts exercise our brains and decision-making skills. (Image: Richard Berry)

Frankly I’m a roundabout fan mainly because I hate waiting at traffic lights but also because they hand decision making responsibility back to us. Humans are excellent at safely cooperating and roundabouts are a trump of common sense over blindly following rules.

We’ve all sat at a traffic light at night for what seems like hours at an empty intersection waiting to be told it's safe to go. 

Roundabouts exercise our brains and decision-making skills even if we’re not using these types of intersections the way they were intended and according to the laws. I would argue that collectively we’ve worked out a better rule and perhaps the existing laws should change to fit what obviously works very well.  

Richard Berry
Senior Journalist
Richard had wanted to be an astrophysicist since he was a small child. He was so determined that he made it through two years of a physics degree, despite zero...
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