Rules of the Road

Why roundabouts are good for Washington and how to drive them

Southbound traffic flows around the roundabout at Guide Meridian and Ten Mile roads. Roundabouts are becoming more common around Whatcom County and Washington state.
Southbound traffic flows around the roundabout at Guide Meridian and Ten Mile roads. Roundabouts are becoming more common around Whatcom County and Washington state.

In the past two weeks, I’ve received a stack (well, a digital stack) of emails about roundabouts. I’ve heard from traffic engineers, police officers and motorists in our community. Some of the emails are from people frustrated by other drivers in the roundabouts, and they’re hoping this column will sort it all out. That’s a lot to ask, but I’ll give it a try.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen a substantial increase in the number of roundabouts in the region, and the trend is going to continue. The Washington State Department of Transportation has a map of current and future roundabouts to prove it.

I know that not everybody loves roundabouts, so allow me to make a brief sales pitch about why I think they’re a good idea. As you might expect, I’ll start with safety. A study by the American Journal of Public Health found that roundabouts reduce total crashes by 38 percent, injury crashes by 76 percent and fatal crashes by 90 percent compared with traditional intersections. In my mind, that’s a good enough reason already, but I’ll add a few more.


▪ Improve pedestrian safety by creating an island between lanes, allowing walkers to cross only one direction of travel at a time.

▪ Can handle more cars per hour than a light-controlled intersection, improving transportation efficiency.

▪ Are more cost-effective to maintain, and they still work when the power goes out (a nice feature during winter storms).

Right now some of you might be asking, “If roundabouts are so great, then why can’t people figure out how to drive in them?” I have some guesses, but speculating won’t solve the problem.

Instead, let’s go over the basics of how to drive through a roundabout, beginning with the approach. On a single-lane roundabout it’s pretty straightforward; slow down, and watch for pedestrians. On multilane roundabouts, drivers need to pick a lane prior to entering the roundabout. Lane selection works just like a traditional intersection; to turn right choose the right lane, to turn left or make a U-turn choose the left lane, and to go straight use either lane.

Next, yield to any traffic already in the roundabout. On multilane roundabouts, yield to traffic in both lanes. Vehicles in the roundabout have the right of way. On multilane roundabouts, don’t drive next to trucks or vehicles with trailers, as they may need both lanes to get through. Roundabouts generally post a sign stating as much as a reminder. If you’ve chosen your lane correctly, all that’s left is to signal your intention to exit the roundabout and carry on. I know at first it feels a bit strange to signal for a right turn as you’re steering to the left, but signaling out of a roundabout is required, and it helps approaching drivers understand your intention.

I’d like to add a couple of more directives regarding roundabouts. First, don’t change lanes while in a roundabout. If you accidentally choose the wrong lane, commit to your error and exit the roundabout according to your lane choice. It may take a few extra minutes of travel to remedy the error if you end up on the wrong road, but that’s a lot better than getting tangled up with another vehicle in the roundabout.

And finally, once in a roundabout, don’t stop. We’ve probably all encountered the driver who, having the right of way at an intersection, waves for another driver to go. At a traditional intersection, it usually just creates confusion and delay; in a roundabout, it’s a recipe for a rear-end collision. Maybe some drivers think it’s polite to make room for other motorists at the expense of disregarding the right of way, but the most courteous thing you can do on the road is drive according to the rules.

If you’re longing for more in-depth information about roundabouts, or you’d find it helpful to see some diagrams as you read this article, take a look at roundabouts on the WSDOT website. Be kind, and drive wise.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.