Traffic Circles & How to Navigate Them

Traffic circles, sometimes called rotaries (if they’re large scale) or roundabouts, are a type of circular intersection. Yes, they’re round and strange and you might find them confusing at first, but remember: it’s just an intersection.

In addition to providing a nice little center island green space with shrubs to drive around, roundabouts, with their yield signs and low speeds, are actually safer than your average four-way intersection. They can also be way less confusing once you get the hang of them since every motor vehicle is turning in a clockwise direction. They're also much easier for large vehicles and emergency vehicles to navigate.

Who has the right of way?

It’s pretty simple. If a vehicle is already in the traffic circle, they have the right of way.

You wouldn’t walk right up to a cashier and try to check out at the store if someone else was in the middle of getting their groceries scanned, right? Just wait your turn and everything will be great.

In some situations, there may be a traffic control device like a stop sign or stoplight at each entrance of the modern roundabout. If that’s the case, do what these traffic signals say. There will usually be some kind of roundabout guide like a pavement marking or sign at the entrances giving you an idea of how to proceed.

safe-driving Traffic circle lane control sign, courtesy California Department of Transportation

How do you drive in a traffic circle?

When you get to the traffic roundabout and see that it’s clear of other vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians, it’s time to join the circular party. Turn RIGHT, do not make a left turn. Traffic circles are basically one-way streets. A left turn into a roundabout would feel totally wrong, and you could end up in a head-on collision.

Continue driving along the circle following traffic flow until you reach the street that you want to exit. If you’re in the interior lane of a really big circle, you will need to change lanes to exit. You'll always need to be in the right lane to exit. Simply merge onto the street of your choice. See? Not so bad.