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Roundabouts. The approach stage

As I said earlier, traffic should be flowing smoothly around the roundabout. Your initial concerns on the approach should therefore be to firstly confirm what type of roundabout it is, is it a mini-roundabout, a proper roundabout, or has it been ruined with traffic lights? Assuming it is a proper roundabout (instructions for other types to follow) then your next task is to identify the lane you want for your exit, the queue of traffic in that lane, and the speed of traffic going around the junction. You also need to keep an eye open for common hazards.

The lane you want is easy to identify, primarily it is the same as for car drivers. Keep left if turning left or going straight on, keep right if turning right. Some junctions may also have a third lane (or more) for straight ahead, but will probably also have clear markings on the ground to tell you where to go. Highway Code rules 160 to 166 give more details and pictures. (That chapter is directly referenced from rule 61 which is for cyclists).

You should also consider which lane will give you the safest route, and the best opportunity to negotiate the junction without conflict. For example on some large and high speed roundabouts staying in the outside lane may not be as advisable. I normally dislike cycle facilities at roundabouts because of the dramatically increased time it takes to get through the junction, sometimes though they can be the better choice.

When we talk about safety, the best thing you can do is to maintain a "safety zone" around yourself. Don't get too close to the car in front, don't go too near the edges of the lanes (car drivers may try to push past), and try to keep space behind you. If you have a car right on your wheel look over your shoulder and try to make your presence felt, the driver will often drop back slightly. Once you have that space you can enlarge it by being aware of the situation in the nearby lanes. Some large vehicles such as articulated lorries may take up too much space and have large blind spots, so keep well clear; similarly be aware of the blind spots that car drivers have and keep out of them.

You can use this space for plan B, your contingency should something happen. You can accelerate, brake or manouevre sideways into available space. Think of yourself cycling in the middle square of a nine square board. Your aim should be to keep as many of the adjoining squares available for use, and never have three full squares in a line.

In rule 62 the Highway Code suggests an alternative method of negotiating a roundabout. Using this advice is potentially hazardous, note the bullet points carefully. I will repeat them here.

  • be aware that drivers may not easily see you
  • take extra care when cycling across exits and you may need to signal right to show you are not leaving the roundabout
  • watch out for vehicles crossing your path to leave or join the roundabout

  • It is vital that you assess the traffic behind you, what is already "in circuit" on the roundabout, and if you can see the other entrances then assess what is approaching. You need to get a mental map of the situation as it is now, and a reasonable idea of what it will be like when you get there.

    Add together these maps, the theoretically correct lane, and the potentially safer route if the junction is nasty. You should now have a very clear picture in your mind as to your route through the junction.

    You need to decide whether the queue is acceptable to join, or whether you should use your advantage as a cyclist to filter to the front of the queue. If you do filter, will there be a gap for you to pull straight out into? If you need the right hand lane you also need to plan how and when to get there.

    One of my regular roundabouts is approached on a long 30mph dual carriageway. I find that the easiest way into the outside lane is to stay in my normal cycling position (see Cyclecraft for positioning help) until I am nearly at the end of the queue waiting for the junction. At that point I check over my shoulder that it is safe (having until then kept a close eye on my mirror) signal, and then pull out across the lane until I am nearly at the right hand edge of it. I suppose you could say that I am riding along the same line that the driverís seat of a car takes. I then check again over my shoulder for a space in the outside lane, adjust my speed to match the speed of that lane, then signal and move over into the gap as it comes alongside me.

    The whole manoeuvre is made easier by the fact I leave it until the traffic speed is slowing to match my pace at that point. One word of caution though, don't leave it too late! If you do you could get trapped into the kerb by a car driver who is desperate to get past you, or worse you could move into the braking area of a car and get hit when they cannot stop in time. You need to be aware that the car drivers may also be planning for their negotiation of the junction and not notice you pulling out.

    If the traffic is particularly light then moving over is easy, if it is heavy and stationary then just ride, with caution, down between the lanes until nearly at the roundabout where you can then merge with the traffic queue.

    At roundabouts that are served by one lane that splits into two, you need to pull out very wide (take the primary position as described in Cyclecraft) and claim the lane. Then, as the lane splits into two you are already in the correct position to consider signalling and then moving into the outside lane.

    If you are turning left, then remain in the normal cycling position in the left hand lane. Be aware though, some roundabouts have tight left hand bends on the approach. If this is the case for you at this junction then you may need to stay further away from the kerb than normal and claim the lane completely for yourself. The reason for this is that some drivers think that they are giving you room but instead are cutting the corner and nearly clipping the kerb. This can only result in misery. Prevent it happening by being aware of the nearby traffic and moving out to prevent it passing if you feel endangered. If your roundabout has a left hand bend on the approach NEVER filter down between the traffic and the kerb! (Photo of squashed railings to be uploaded)

    In fact, not only should you never filter between the traffic and the kerb, you should never want to position yourself to the nearside of the vehicles closest to the roundabout. The drivers attention will be to their right, where the traffic is approaching from, so will not see you. Stay in the gap between the leading and second vehicles and try to take the centre of the lane as you enter the roundabout.

    Never be scared of traffic or of indicating and moving out into the centre of a lane. What is better - Being timid and then polite to the ambulance staff, or being assertive and un-injured? If you are polite but assertive when you signal then swing out into the space then you should get the respect you are due. If the driver is in a particularly bad mood then the worst you are likely to get is a hoot and verbal abuse (which is painless), but if they do decide to get physical and use their vehicle as a weapon towards you then you have the advantage of being more manoeuvrable (turn instantly around and ride back the way you came, if safe) plus you can take their number plate and report them to the police.

    For all lanes, you then need to get the approach to the junction correct. If the traffic is particularly solid, as it is on my rush hour commutes, then you may want to consider my filtering technique to get you past the queue, be careful though!

    The key thing to remember is that you want to arrive at the junction and enter the roundabout without stopping, although in today's busy traffic having to stop is likely. It is no good speeding past the traffic queue to the junction then hitting the brakes hard and stopping, so losing all your momentum. Therefore, on your approach you have to be carefully watching both the traffic on the roundabout as well as traffic on the other entrances (if they are close by) and choose the gap that you want. You then need to adjust your approach speed so that you arrive at the junction at the same time as that gap, and in the correct gear to accelerate away. Stay in a lower gear so you can easily accelerate, don't push high gears at this point as your acceleration will be poor. If no gap is available then you will need to stop; as you slow don't forget to change down to the correct gear to pull away in. In summary, You need to be prepared to stop but look to go.

    One other item to be aware of and watch out for is the phenomenon of the car you are following driving to the empty junction and then stopping to look to see if it is clear. Don't get so wrapped up in your own planning that you assume the vehicles you are following are going to flow onto the empty roundabout.

    Be prepared for this need to stop and make sure that you stop in a safe place. Dependant on the particular roundabout you need to consider whether to merge into the traffic queue and wait your turn for a space; you will need a large space on the roundabout to pull out into though. On other roundabouts where you have filtered to near the front of the queue you can stop between the stationary lanes a few vehicles back from the junction; this has the advantage that when you start you can accelerate fast to the roundabout between the lanes and then enter a much smaller space on the roundabout than the cars at the front of the queue need, so aiding your safety.

    What can be very satisfying, and I have to admit that I do this several times a week, is to filter down between two lanes of stationary traffic with the approach speed absolutely spot on. As you get to the front of the queue the drivers of the stationary cars on each side of you see the gap, put their vehicles into first gear and accelerate; however as you are already doing a sedate speed, of say 10 miles an hour, your acceleration into the gap is much more positive and so you leave them behind. You then have a nice large empty zone of safety around you.

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