Thursday, 19 February 2009

Round and Round

The World-famous Magic Roundabout in Swindon [Source]

FADKOG has been complaining about the number of roundabouts ("circles" in US English) in Britain. I don't know when she last graced these shores with her presence, but in recent years they have been multiplying.

Of course, I could complain about America's infamous four way stop intersections, but we'll let that pass. For the time being.

Imaginary Flagpoles

We have a government publication here called the "Highway Code". This describes how one should behave as a road user, though it isn't actually the law.

Excerpt from The Highway Code, 1931

I haven't looked at it since I learned to drive twenty years ago, but in those days there was the rule about the imaginary flagpole.

If two cars going in opposite directions both wish to turn right at a junction (remember this is like a left turn for those who drive on the wrong side of the road), instead of passing in front of each other, they should both pass behind, as if going round an imaginary flagpole situated in the centre of the junction.

My driving instructor informed me that "round here" people don't do this, they pass in front. He didn't explain what to do if I went anywhere else in the country. Things could get a little messy if the other driver tried to go round me and I didn't. At the very least I'd probably collide with an imaginary flagpole.

Luckily, most junctions have very well defined markings about where to go, and traffic lights, filters, and so on. Or they're roundabouts.


The rules for roundabouts are relatively simple. During the War, they were treated as highly classified military secrets, so that if we were invaded the enemy troops wouldn't know how to get past them and would probably just go round in circles. This was a tried and tested strategy, which had kept the likes of Napolean out, and us invader free since 1066 (Sadly for the Saxons, roundabouts were a Norman invention). It's why Hitler tried to invade Britain by air instead of landing ground forces.

Since we are now members of the EU along with all our natural enemies, the rules have been declassified and are in the public domain:


1. Go round in a clockwise direction.

2. Give way to traffic already on the roundabout.

3. Give way to traffic coming from your right.

4. If you wish to leave the exit after your entrance, signal left as you approach the roundabout.

5. If you wish to go round the roundabout more than 180 degrees or so, signal right as you approach the roundabout. Unless your exit is to your right, but is morally deemed to be straight on.

6. Once on the roundabout, signal left as you pass the exit before the one you wish to take.

In order to protect against the Boche getting hold of a copy of these, and to further confuse them, motorists were told in 1914 to disregard rules 4 - 6, and not to give away their intentions by indicating, and this practice has been maintained on roundabouts to the present day. Drivers are advised to try mind-reading, and a seventh rule has been added:

7. Don't hit anyone.

Of course the most famous and fascinating roundabout is not in Britain, but at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Mini Roundabouts

The mini roundabout was invented as part of an initiative by the country's planning authorities to stop motorists (and planning authorities) getting bored. The grand plan appears to be to replace all junctions which are too small to have traffic lights or real roundabouts with these things.

As their name suggests, they're easy to miss, and because they're so small most of the rules about priority tend to go out of the window since otherwise there's the real risk of a Mexican standoff where everyone is giving way to the driver on their right. In order to prevent this, rule 7 was amended to its present form.

7. At mini roundabouts, forget all other rules, put your foot down and try to get to your exit without hitting anyone.

This rule should be familiar to Americans, since it's the same one they use for the four way stop intersection.

Just in case you're not confused enough, here's an explanatory video. Sorry about the ropy sound.


Bee said...


Bee said...

Holy crap Brian! We only have a tiny one here and I hate it. I think I'm going to be cabbing it a lot if I ever go to your planet.

for a different kind of girl said...

Dude!! Roundabouts are freakin' scary! And ours (they are the latest novelty that all suburban planners LOVE installing in our newer developments) are these two-lane monsters, and with all the signage around, I'm wondering do I watch traffic or read the sign to try and figure it out. I'm still confused after watching the video!

No Cool Story said...

Roundabouts are of the devil! They must be killed and destroyed or viceversa.
And there's nothing magical about that roundabout map.

I googled 'ropy' :)

Tracys Ramblings said...

I'm pretty sure that if I got stuck on one of those roundabout thingys I would just drive in a circle and cry.
They look scary!

Tracys Ramblings said...

I do have to ask, since the Brits are known for being polite, is there anyone flipping the bird or yelling at other drivers things like "Wanker!"
Not that I know what wanker means but when I've heard it used, it didn't seem to sound nice.

Chris Wood said...

It's roundabouts that make Britain what it is! We owe it all to them ...

Jean Knee said...

Yeah I've been on your evil roundabouts. add to that disorder the driving on the wrong side of the road and yer screwed

at least the name makes sense

Brian o vretanos said...


I'm sure that both you and the local population will feel safer if you take a cab ;-)


It must be difficult to get used to them all at once - we've had them so long that it was part of learning to drive for most of us.


The point of the map is that it's rare to have 5 roundabouts joined together like that. double roundabouts are bad enough...


Road rage is alive and well, and yes people do use the term "wanker" to describe their fellow drivers. Or at least I do.



Jean Knee:

I found some American videos online extolling the virtues of roundabouts. No traffic lights saves on electricity (although we have traffic lights on our larger roundabouts), better traffic flow and fuel consumption, the ability to put grass and trees in the middle, etc. Father Al must surely approve...

Jean Knee said...

Father Al doesn't drive himself

Brian o vretanos said...

Which gives him even more time to admire these environmentally friendly junctions.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

that was jeanKnee

Otter Thomas said...

I have driven around some roundabouts in Paris and other parts of France. I rode a bus around a few going from Heathrow to Gatwick as well. Every time I go around one I can't help but say "Hey Kids, Big Ben, Parliament."

Brian o vretanos said...


You've DRIVEN in Paris? You're a braver man than me ;-)

Dan said...

My head hurts....I hope I make it to England one day so that I can make use of all this info.

Brian o vretanos said...


I hope you make it over here too. You'll soon get the hang of the roundabout thing, and then you'll be able to get yourself to a pub, where I'll happily buy you a drink or three...

Dan said...

Ok, sounds good......but I'm not smoking any fags!

Brian o vretanos said...

They've banned it in pubs anyway. You have to go outside.