How to Drive
Efficient and effective once you
understand them, a little bit scary prior to then.
The 'Magic Roundabout' in
Swindon is a monstrous complexity of five roundabouts within
a larger roundabout.
Fortunately, you'll seldom
encounter anything like this while driving in Britain (or
Part of our series on
Driving in Britain.
Links to other pages at the bottom.
A fear expressed by many people
when considering driving in Britain is going around the
roundabouts that are so commonly in use there.
Roundabouts may seem unfamiliar and
complicated the first time you go through one, but when you
appreciate the simple rules for how they operate, you too can
confidently and safely pass through them and come to like them,
just like the British themselves.
Although uncommon in the US, they
are slowly becoming more widespread here, so even if you have
no immediate plans to travel to Britain, you may find this helpful
for your local US travels too.
We write about
roundabouts in massive detail on this page, but they are really quite
A Short History of Roundabouts (or 'Traffic
Circles' or 'Rotaries')
The concept of the modern
roundabout - a circular flow of traffic where merging traffic
gives way to traffic already in the circle - was developed by
British engineers in the early 1960s.
Prior to that time, there had
been other types of rotary junctions/interchanges, but typically
they gave priority to entering traffic rather than to traffic
already in the interchange.
Modern roundabouts are slowly
spreading to the US, although they are common in other countries,
and the country with the most roundabouts is actually France
rather than Britain (about 30,000 in France). In comparison,
in 2010, there were thought to be about 2,000 in the US.
Although they seem confusing
and - by extension - dangerous, they are in reality, very safe.
A US study showed that roundabouts had 40% fewer vehicle
collisions, 80% fewer injuries and 90% fewer serious injuries and
fatalities compared to the junctions they replaced.
In countries where traffic
keeps to the right (such as the US) traffic flows around the
roundabout in an anti-clockwise direction - that is, you turn to
the right to enter the roundabout. In countries where they
drive on the left - notably the UK of course - traffic flows in a
Roundabouts offer a more
efficient way of allowing traffic to move through a junction, not
only more safely, but with fewer delays as well. They also
allow U-turns without risk or interruption to the rest of the
They work best in cases where
traffic levels are moderate and somewhat balanced. Unfortunately, with the
ever increasing amounts of traffic on British roads, many
roundabouts that were once effective and efficient have become
more complicated, with various 'workaround' solutions adding to the
complexity of them - in particular, roundabouts with three or four
lanes around them, and traffic lights at various points around the
If you approach roundabouts
confidently and correctly, you'll come to like them, most of the
time, and use them safely and well.
Entering the Roundabout
Unless there are signs to the
contrary, the basic rule at a roundabout is that traffic in the
roundabout has priority, and traffic entering the roundabout has
to give way to traffic in and exiting the roundabout.
However - and this is a key
point. You do need to give way to traffic already in the
roundabout; but you do not need to stop, and you can simply merge
into the traffic already in the roundabout.
In other words, do not stop
when entering the roundabout unless there is a solid wall of
traffic going around the roundabout preventing your safe entry.
You do not need to wait until there is no visible traffic already
in the roundabout. If you can safely fit into the line of
vehicles already in the roundabout, you should do so.
Try and merge into the
roundabout traffic, the same way you merge into a freeway.
And, just like merging on a freeway, the key is not to stop unless
you have to - it is much easier to merge into a small space when
traveling at the same speed.
If you stop for no reason,
there is a danger that a car behind you will fail to notice and
will rear-end you. As drivers approach a roundabout, they
have to split their focus between the car in front and the traffic
in the roundabout. If things look clear, it is easy to make an assumption that
the driver in front will of course keep on moving, because that is
what a sensible driver would do based on the traffic already in
the roundabout. So, with this assumption, the driver behind focuses to see if there will be a
chance for him to move into the roundabout too.
If you've stopped
unnecessarily, the driver behind may not notice this and may
rear-end you. The other side of this coin is to beware of
bad drivers in front of you, and never to assume they will act
Which Lane to Use Entering the
Many - most - roundabouts have
two lanes for traffic entering them. If you will be taking
the very first exit, you should be in the left lane. If you
will be taking the last exit, you should be in the right lane.
If you are taking one of any other exits, use your best judgment
as to which lane to be in.
Sometimes there might be signs
prior to the roundabout guiding you as to which lane you should be
Driving Around the Roundabout
Now that you have entered the
roundabout you will probably have right of way as you go around
it, and if there are any exceptions to this rule, they will be
clearly signposted for you to know.
Your concerns at this stage
are to follow the flow of traffic, and to be in the appropriate
lane to be able to exit at the appropriate exit to the roundabout.
As you go around the
roundabout, if it is a multi-lane roundabout, you'll need to move
over to the exit lane in time for your exit. This can be a
bit difficult; be sure to indicate and keep a careful eye on the
cars in front and alongside as you change lanes.
Worst case scenario - if you
miss your exit, don't worry. Just go around again, as many
times as you like, until you get it all sorted out.
Exiting the Roundabout
If you're on a major road into
the roundabout and exiting on the same or another major road, and
if the entry into the roundabout was two lanes, you'll probably
also have two lanes to exit as well, so you can be in either of
the two outer lanes when approaching that exit.
If you're on a minor road, or
exiting to a minor road, and of course if the roundabout is only
one lane anyway, then things are easier.
Signaling Your Way Around the
While you are driving around a
one lane roundabout, you should be signaling a right hand turn as
you drive around it, to tell drivers waiting to enter the
roundabout that you're continuing on around.
When you approach your exit,
you should signal a left hand turn to show drivers waiting to
merge into the roundabout that you're going to exit, telling them
it is safe for them to pull into the roundabout.
Obviously, do not start to signal a left
turn/exit if there is another exit prior to the one you will take.
If you are in a multilane
roundabout, you don't need to signal anything, except for when
changing lanes, and if you are in the outermost lane and about to
Observing the Lanes
Be careful to always stay in
your lane except for when you have clearly signaled and the way is
clear for you to change lanes.
In particular, if you are
exiting the roundabout with a two lane exit, be careful not to
drift across from one lane to the other. Stay exactly in
Remember that all cars have
blind spots, and you're probably in an unfamiliar rental car with unfamiliar blindspots to start with.
And then, the whole geometry of
everything is a bit different when going around in circles rather
than in straight lines, and so for these reasons it is important
to be very careful to stay in your lane and to check when changing
Special Types of Roundabouts
In addition to ordinary
roundabouts, there are a some special case roundabouts you
might sometimes encounter.
One of these is the
'mini-roundabout' where two roads come to an intersection, and
there's a round white circle in the middle of the road - perhaps
slightly raised up, perhaps not.
In such cases, you
could even drive straight through the intersection and over the
top of the middle part of the 'roundabout', depending on how much
it might be raised up. Quite a few people do this, but you
are not supposed to by law (with dispensations for trucks that
might otherwise have difficulty with the fairly tight turning
These mini-roundabouts are
intended to indicate that 'roundabout rules' apply at the
intersection and to slow traffic down somewhat.
The other type of roundabout
is the multiple roundabout where one roundabout feeds immediately
into a second (and possibly then into a third).
These multiple roundabouts can
make for some scary looking traffic signs before you reach them, but once
you get into them, they are exactly the same as normal
roundabouts, just closer together than is usually the case.
In their ultimate form, a
series of roundabouts can end up as a 'magic roundabout', with
perhaps the best known (but not most extreme) example being in
Swindon, on the edge of the Cotswolds and pictured at the top of
The Swindon roundabout is at a junction of five
roads, and there are five small roundabouts at each road junction
point, and two lane traffic going in both clockwise (outer circle)
and anti-clockwise (inner circle) directions, giving cars a choice
of in effect going left or right around the roundabout.
This sounds terribly
confusing, and perhaps it is best experienced in person rather
than attempting to explain it. The locals have ended up
appreciating this roundabout very much, and it works very
The Three Dangers of
There are three common areas
of potential danger that you need to be aware of in a roundabout.
The first is if the car in
front of you unexpectedly stops instead of smoothly entering into
the roundabout to start with. Keep an eye on the car in
front at this time.
The second is with lane
changes - either you mess up when you are changing a lane, or
perhaps a car alongside messes up and changes lane right into you.
Always be very aware of the cars on either side of you.
The third is if a car
misunderstands your intentions and pulls into the roundabout in
front of you, cutting you off. Try not to give confusing
indications that might cause another driver to misunderstand what
you are and will be doing.
But, having said that,
remember that roundabouts are much safer than conventional
junctions, and also get you through them with less delay.
A bit of practice, and you'll
be happily going through them, the same as everyone else.
For the last word on
roundabouts, here is the
British Highway Code's statement of official rules and guidelines
For More Information About
Driving in Britain
Our Driving in Britain
series has four main pages plus two additional pages about other
important issues to do with driving in Britain.
The pages are :
An Introduction to Driving in
Britain - tells you the basic essentials to do with driving in
Driving Techniques and
Issues - about one lane roads and motorways (freeways), speed
limits and enforcement.
Miscellaneous Considerations when Driving in Britain - All
sorts of other things, ranging from the price of petrol to drink
driving and seatbelt rules.
How to Drive
around Roundabouts (this is the page you are on)- for information about driving around the
roundabouts that are prevalent in Britain (and elsewhere too).
We also have a page about
How to Drive
on the Left (Other) Side of the Road which sets out some
helpful tips and pointers for how to make this as easy as
And, not so much about
driving, but still an important aspect of driving, see also our
page about where and how to park your car
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12 May 2011, last update
02 Jul 2017
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.