Americans and the mysterious case of the non four way stop

When I emigrated from the United Kingdom to the great state of Vermont 20 years ago, I went through the typical routines of getting driving licenses and other such necessities of life. The driving test was ridiculously easy by European standards, consisting of a 5 minute drive around the block in 6 inches of falling snow.

Once driving had become a normal part of life, the little differences between UK and American driving became apparent. There are many many aspects that are very similar, but there are a couple which have caused endless frustration over the years, and continue to do so today. I’ve tried my hardest to understand, but even now I’m stumped, so will someone please tell me WHY CANT AMERICANS USE A ROUNDABOUT???


This is a roundabout (or a rotary as it’s called here). It’s a deceptively simple traffic management device, with only a few simple rules that enable four steams of traffic to interact in a speedy yet safe manner, so long as everyone knows the rules of how they work. I’ve experienced difficulties in the way these things are used so many times (like – almost every time) that I thought some light instruction would be in order.

The first issue is that Americans are very familiar with the four way stop sign, and the manner in which that is used. Rules are pretty simple. Whoever gets to the junction first and stops has the right to proceed first. If two of you get to the junction first, the one to the right has right of way. If all four get to the junction at exactly the same time, a little negotiation ensues until someone goes, then the right hand rule applies.

The problem is that a rotary is NOT a four way stop. There’s no requirement to stop at all, so long as you have a clear exit path to your journey through it. You can happily barrel through it at speed, using those wonderful things in cars known as suspension components to steer the car round the rotary. The rules are pretty simple, and basically are as follows:


If you’re in the red car and you approach the rotary while a car is exiting past you down the other side of the road you are traveling on, and your exit is clear, you can enter the rotary at speed and exit at whatever exit you choose. You don’t need to stop. Also, the act of entering the rotary gives you RIGHT OF WAY over any other cars entering the rotary. Cars can’t cut you off in other words.


This is the first major rule of the rotary. CARS TO THE LEFT HAVE RIGHT OF WAY.


If the car already on the rotary is turning left in front of you, IT HAS RIGHT OF WAY, and you can’t enter the rotary until it has cleared.

That’s it! The more I experience this the more I have come to the conclusion that Americans are so conditioned to the rules of the four way stop (and the traffic ticket and fine associated with the act of not stopping) that they apply those rules and fears to the the rotary. I think this is why when they drive in Europe they can sit paralyzed at the entrance of a roundabout unable to proceed until some exasperated soul lets them in. Then it’s quite normal for them to be unable to exit. Once you’re used to the system, it speeds things up dramatically with no increase in accident rate.

So, if you’re a hesitant rotary user, PLEASE take a look and familiarize yourself with this. It’ll be better for all of us, I promise.

This was a public service announcement from Grumpy Old Brits Inc.