Rules of the Road: Signaling in roundabouts can be a problem but would signs really help?

Q: Having recently traveled to Europe it drives me crazy that people here don’t understand signaling in a roundabout. I was taught to signal my intent to exit a roundabout, but 99% of people using roundabouts in Washington don’t signal at all. Perhaps some signage would help?

A: So many traffic questions that I receive, especially about roundabouts, are prompted by trips to Europe. Based on the traffic fatality rates of most European countries, we do have a lot to learn from them. Although, I was once a passenger in a van going from the airport to my hotel in Rome, and the lines on the freeway meant nothing. We were six vehicles wide on a four-lane highway. When it comes to impaired driving, pedestrian safety, speeding, and roundabouts, we could take some lessons from the Europeans. But maybe we don’t learn freeway driving from the Italians.

Returning to your question, what do you suggest we put on your proposed sign? The reason I ask is because I’m not convinced the law requires drivers to signal their intention in a roundabout. In previous articles I’ve speculated on this, because as currently written, the law is unclear.

It appears that our legislators aren’t convinced either, as last year they attempted to add some clarity. A bill proposed in 2023 and reintroduced this year would, if passed, add the following sentence to our turn signal law: “A signal of intention to exit a circular intersection shall be given continuously upon approaching the position to be used to exit the circular intersection.”

You mentioned that you were taught to signal your intent to exit a roundabout, and that’s good advice, but we don’t install road signs to offer recommendations on best practices. There are three general classifications of road signs: regulatory, which give notice of traffic laws; warning, which alert drivers to something that might not be readily apparent; and guide signs, which show directions and other information to get you where you’re going. Despite a deep longing from many people I’ve spoken with, there isn’t a category for “things that would make driving better, even though it’s not the law.”

If you want that sign installed, maybe the best approach would be to call your state representative and let them know your position on the turn signal law. I can’t promise that passing this bill would result in signs (or at least some education) telling drivers to signal at roundabouts, but you can bet there won’t be any if it’s not required by law.

If my inbox is any indication, of all the driving situations we encounter roundabouts produce the most confusion. Some might claim that’s proof that we shouldn’t be using them. I’ll argue the opposite. Sure, if you measure the success of traffic infrastructure by how well drivers understand it, we still have room to improve on roundabouts. But I measure success based on serious crashes.

Consider this: even when a not insignificant portion of drivers don’t know what to do in roundabout, they still reduce serious crashes. And not just a little. Roundabouts reduce injury crashes by 75 percent and fatal crashes by 90 percent compared to traditional intersections.

As drivers, we should use the limited tools we have to communicate our intentions to other road users, even if what’s required by law is debatable. As a general principle, we shouldn’t use the law as a means to see how much we can get away with. Regardless of the outcome of the roundabout signaling bill, let’s help each other out by using our blinkers to show where we’re headed.