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August 5, 2014

Emily Parnell: As traffic patterns evolve, it helps to review a few rules of the road

There are unwritten rules about roundabouts and four-way stops, but not everyone seems to know them. Or maybe they’ve just forgotten

For the love of the people, it’s time to take a moment and review some traffic rules.

The other day, I was driving through a newer intersection that has been fancied up with a good ol’ European-style roundabout. Road planners — whoever they are — have simply assumed that drivers know how to use a roundabout. There are no instructions posted, no flashing billboards advising on how to proceed, no letters in the mail with diagrams for the uninformed.

I know how to work these things. You just enter without stopping (unless you’re going to smash a car or human, in which case stopping is always required) and proceed counter-clockwise until you reach your desired road, and carry on your merry way. Toodle loo, you call out your window as you leave. (This portion is optional.)

In a true roundabout, the circular part has the right-of-way over someone who has not entered yet. It’s fine to enter the circle while other cars are in it — without first coming to a stop — as long as you don’t cause the rounding traffic to slow down or stop. Never, ever, turn left into oncoming traffic, and most importantly, don’t run over pedestrians.

Not everyone seems to be aware of how these works, as evidenced by the driver I witnessed last week at our new, neighborhood roundabout. The car ahead of me first stopped at the circle, then turned left into the circle. My jaw dropped, and I realized that some people simply do not know how these things work.

(I feel it necessary to insert a description of the driver here, as I expect some of you are forming a vision of this driver, based on your personal driver stereotypes. I will tell you this was a man who appeared to be in his mid-40s, driving an average car with Missouri license plates. File that away in your driver profiling databank as you wish.)

Four-way stop signs are another traffic dilemma worth pondering. Worth Googling, I would suggest, for those who are not perfectly clear on right-of-way rules. My neighborhood sports a rather busy four-way stop that I drive through several times a week. We’re not a particularly reckless neighborhood, it turns out, as I rarely see drivers bullying their way through. But often, cars will stop from every direction in a game of egg.

The game of egg is the opposite of playing chicken. In chicken, everyone goes until someone chickens out and stops. In egg, nobody can get up the courage to go. It’s not dangerous, but it can be a little time-consuming. And usually, someone has the clear right of way. The rules are simple, although leave a certain amount of room for interpretation.

Whoever gets to the stop sign first, goes first.

If two cars are at the stop sign at the same time, the one on the right goes first.

If two cars arrive simultaneously and are facing each other, one turning, the other going straight, the one going straight goes first, then the one turning gets their turn. (This seems to be the breakdown — as waiting cross-traffic will have to wait TWO turns to allow the driver to turn left. Please, people, let the left-turners go, too!)

If everyone gets there at the exact same nanosecond, someone is going to have to get up the courage to go, and others are going to have to let them. It’s a delicate balance of courtesy and assertiveness.

Next time you find yourself at a four-way or about to enter a roundabout, pay attention. Are others following the rules? Are you? Did you stop completely? (As in, not moving at all?) Did you know, beyond doubt, who was supposed to go next? If not, you better refresh!

Special thanks to Brian Shields, the city traffic engineer for the city of Overland Park, for his insights.

Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes weekly.

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