Why Americans Don’t Understand the Roundabout


Newbies may go ’round a few times before being able to exit. (MWT)

In 2013 the British Roundabout Appreciation Society (yes, there is one and don’t laugh) awarded Columbus Circle, in New York City, Best Roundabout in the World.

A little about roundabouts, according to British journalist Stephen Beard, “The roundabout is said to have flourished in Britain because it requires the British virtues of compromise and cooperation. The U.S.’s more aggressive, confrontational culture may explain why the roundabout has not been more widely adopted by Americans.”

Compromise and cooperation? Has this man never attempted Hemel Hempstead’s “Magic Roundabout”, which is, in fact six smaller roundabouts? And how about trying to get out of Heathrow airport, which is basically a zoo of mini roundabouts encased in a giant one? Or the roundabouts that are so humungous and congested they require several sets of traffic lights to keep everything under control?

But I digress. Apparently, over the past decade the U.S. has installed over three thousand British-style roundabouts, in part because they are cheaper to maintain than traffic lights. And national resistance from Americans,  from Americans, I find the U.S. roundabout experience far less stressful and death defying than its British counterpart.

For a start, American roundabouts (not to be confused with larger traffic circles like Dupont in Washington D.C.) are quite often smaller and single lane, meaning that the traffic is moving relatively slowly and there’s no panicking about having to move to the center if you’re going all the way round. You’re all the way round before you know where you are. (Two lane roundabouts do exist and require drivers to choose a lane depending on their desired exit.) American roundabouts also don’t come in litters; one is usually quite enough for your average driver.

Of course, there is one downside to roundabouts here, Americans often haven’t a clue what to do. Used to traffic lights and stop signs with clear rules about who is to go first and when, many Americans loathe roundabouts, and it shows. To quote a 2009 Slate article “… we have grown used to (and feel comfortable with) binary, on-off traffic control. We suspect such signals are more efficient than the “fuzzy logic” that seems to govern roundabouts. Roundabouts require drivers to make their own decisions and assess others’ actions, rather than relying on third-party signals.” Most states actually have rules on how to approach and drive around roundabouts, however, I know from my teens’ recent Drivers’ Ed. experiences, it isn’t stressed in lessons and rarely tested in the exam.

Most Departments of Transportation state that drivers must yield to cars already circling the roundabout; there is no merging. And yet, there is always the driver who looks you square in the eye then bolts out, despite your rightful claim to the right of way by dint of already being on the roundabout and approaching from the left. And let’s not forget the person who mistakes “Yield” for “Stop” and comes to a complete and utter halt despite the glaring absence of oncoming traffic.

Many U.S. roundabouts add an element of danger with pedestrian crosswalks situated right next to the exits. Not only do you have to contend with drivers cutting you off to exit from the inside lane, but as soon as you turn off, you come across someone in the middle of the road.

This is a great mini video clip showing passengers crossing and where drivers have to stop.

Here are some fun roundabout facts:
• According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there is on average a 40% decrease in all accidents and a 90% drop in fatal ones when a traffic intersection is replaced by a roundabout.
• Washington leads the states in roundabouts, followed by Colorado, California, Florida and Kansas
• France has over 30,000 British-style roundabouts; the most in the world.

Have you mastered the roundabout? 

See More: 
Funny British Road Signs
A Brit’s Guide to Understanding American Driving
10 Brooklyn Things Every Expat Must Do


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Alan Richardson

    And in France, just because the French have to be different, traffic coming on to the roundabout has the right-of-way. I have met (in the US), very rarely, flummoxed Americans crossing a roundabout the wrong way.

    • MontanaRed

      Surprisingly, given how new roundabouts are to our area, very few drivers actually go the wrong way. Thank goodness. The ones who scare me, though, are the ones who enter the intersection without so much as a glance towards the left to see if there are already cars in the roundabout. I’ve had some close calls and hit my horn without hesitation when it happens. Hope they’re startled into paying attention.

    • expatmum

      So wait – that means if you’re already going round it, you have to stop? I can’t even see how that would work in busy traffic.

      • Alan Richardson

        Well not come to a stop but slowing enough to let traffic onto the roundabout.

        • Raphaël Langenfelt

          This is not quite correct. 99% of French roundabouts have yield (give way) signs. This didn’t used to be the case (about 20 years ago) and I had a memorable experience Place Victor Hugo in Paris when there was so much traffic coming on to this roundabout that with all approaching cars having right of way the roundabout literally locked up.
          There are exceptions, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris being the most obvious. However given it’s physical size it’s perhaps just as well.

  • ukhousewifeusa

    I love spotting a roundabout here in the USA and I have to check myself to make sure I go round it the correct way! (Tho I did learn to drive on the right, so it helps to think of that!) BUT – why don’t my American cousins indicate??? OOOOOH, it drives me doolally! 😉

  • Graeme Robinson

    By contrast, most Brit drivers would not have a clue what to do at a busy 4 way stop.

    • expatmum

      And judging by the behavior of some of my locals, neither do they!

      • maggie

        That’s true here, nor do they seem to know what a turn signal is for and they love to tail gate especially in a snow storm talking away on their phones. With regards roundabouts there is one locally but the yield sign is nearly always ignored

    • hotgeek88

      Found out in traffic school that there are no actual laws on the book in TN for who should go first at a four way stop. However, if you don’t practice courtesy, the person who hits the other person furthest back on the vehicle is liable for the accident. lol.

  • MontanaRed

    A road I drive regularly was improved to four lanes with some turning lanes (with the help of federal stimulus money). Instead of putting in 7 (seven!) new traffic signals, seven roundabouts (most two-lane) were installed in the interests of keeping traffic flowing, never mind the cost. Whew! They’re beautiful roundabouts, well-designed and landscaped, with at least eight signs as well as indications on the road surface offering guidance on the approaches (we’ve counted them). After several years, drivers are finally getting the hang of what cannot but be called a very simple and fairly intuitive intersection design. Look left, yield to cars already in the intersection, and go right. If you cross a solid line anywhere, you’re doing it wrong. How difficult is that?! The whining, moaning, and whinging at the time, you would not have believed.

  • gn

    The US obsession with traffic lights at small intersections is energy-inefficient, time-inefficient, and ridiculous.

    However, the UK’s love affair with roundabouts can also go too far. Once you are putting traffic lights within roundabouts, something has gone wrong.

    For medium-to-low traffic, roundabouts are generally better. For very high traffic, traffic lights may be the better choice, but it’s crucial to make them “smart” traffic lights that don’t waste cycles.

  • TMarius

    The key to using a multi-lane roundabout in America is just to go faster than everyone else. The other drivers will respect you for it and yield to you, no matter the direction you’re heading. I do it every day on the way to class, and I’ve never been caught in a single one of the ensuing wrecks.

    You guys are clearly the culture with a lack of understanding on the issue.

  • http://trueliberty.us icecycle66

    Shouldn’t it be a French-style roundabout?

    • Graeme Robinson

      Not really. In France, you generally yield to cars coming on to the roundabout whilst in Britain you generally yield to vehicles already on the roundabout.

      What roundabouts there are in the US follow the British model.

      • Robert Eckert

        The roundabouts in the US don’t follow either model, since nobody has the slightest idea who is supposed to yield to who. The US model is that you yield to the most stubborn driver.

        • frozen01

          That’s pretty much the US model of everything, though, isn’t it. At least it is in Chicago 😉
          I love driving here but it is not for the faint of heart!

  • http://www.meaganadelelopez.com/ Meagan

    I know. I drove in London for the first time yesterday, and didn’t do so very successfully – I hit the left hand mirror off the car. But as they “objects in mirror are closer than they appear!” Oops…in this case it was further away.

  • Marsha Smith

    I cannot understand my fellow Americans’ problems with the roundabout. All you have to do is read the sign, in your lane, facing your car that says YIELD. That means you have to yield to the driver in the lane to your right. Then, you can GO.

  • Marsha Smith

    I guess I wasn’t finished. However, when my husband and I went to the Bahamas there was no way I could drive there and apparently could not walk either. When Americans go to the Bahamas and try to cross the street, they look the wrong way! Thank goodness for the polite young lady who touched my shoulder and said *Be careful now.*

    • frozen01

      My friend almost got run over by a motorcycle when we were in London together because of that. Instinct took over and my arm shot out in front of him before he could step out.
      I always look both ways a couple times before moving so it was easy for me to adapt.

  • Andi

    Generally speaking, American don’t “understand” roundabouts because for most of us they are still a fairly new concept and not all that common yet. I live in a decent sized US city but can go months without ever seeing or having to negotiate a roundabout. Most Americans learn to use them from experience only since until somewhat recently their rules weren’t taught in driving classes. So if you happen to be a roundabout expert try to be a little more patient when approaching one in the US and allow the local drivers a chance to get the hang of something totally new to them.

  • Lula

    I love roundabouts. I had no idea that they weren’t popular in the US. Actually, there aren’t many here in China either, that I’ve seen. But what does “And national resistance from Americans, from Americans, I find the U.S. roundabout experience…” mean?

  • Paul Stonkus

    We’ve had ROTARIES in the Boston area for decades. They’re much less frustrating than traffic light intersections.

  • Doesn’t Matter What My Name Is

    My Favorite is when all the cars stop and wait to go one at a time.

  • Jwb52z

    I had no idea that the US had these “roundabout” things. I guess they must be in big cities only in more coastal states most of the time.

    • frozen01

      Nope. My high school had one in front of it (as in, on the main road), and that was about half an hour outside of Green Bay, WI.

  • hotgeek88

    I saw my first roundabout when I was 22 in a tiny little country town an hour outside the major city I grew up in. I had no idea such a thing existed before then. I went around it three times laughing my head off at the novelty of the idea. I certainly preferred it to the excessive number of four way stops they had everywhere else in town, and the city had room for a parking lot for their historic district out in the center where there would normally be traffic in a traditional intersection.

  • J Carvell

    America has a closer history to the Roundabout than it might seem. The term was invented by the American Logan Pearsall Smith during the 1920s, while he served on the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English. Before he came along, traffic circles in Britain were called Gyratory Circuses, a rather exuberant phrase and happily thrown in the bin.

  • American Patriot

    What kind of anti-American propoganda nonsense is this? American Departments of Transportation have been building roundabouts for well over a decade and have reduced accidents and maintenance costs. They still provide accomodation for our large trucks (including those over 65 feet long) as well as bicycles and pedestrian. There are well over 2000 roundabouts in America (that is an average of at least 40 per state). Every DOT requires roundabouts as a design alternative. Even though there is opposition during and prior to construction, those same communities embrace the roundabouts after full implentation. They have been constructed from our urban neighborhood grids to our rural crossroads.
    Now what we Americans is NOT a fan of are those continental European traffic circles, like those Arc de Triumphs in France. Those are absolute garbage (and French). Weird rules, unorthodox traffic control, and a heavy dose of anti-Americanism. America will only take the roundabouts. If anything, we took the British concept and added some American flare to it.

  • Olivia

    I’m 22 years old, been licensed to drive for six years, and just recently encountered my first roundabout in Astoria, Oregon. I don’t think I went faster than 25 mph… I was too busy concentrating on what the heck I needed to do!

  • Johnny Panic

    In Massachusetts, a roundabout is called a rotary and almost always contains more than one lane. They’re usually fairly high speed affairs. When approaching, there is a large white sign with black lettering in the grassy circle, opposite an entry that reads ROTARY under a right pointing arrow with a black and yellow striped bar on the bottom (see: http://goo.gl/maps/3PpTX). They work pretty well and, despite the reputation of the drivers here, they have a pretty good idea as how to negotiate them.

  • Macho Taco

    Give us time and we’ll make our roundabouts as crappy as the UK’s.