How to drive in a roundabout

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On Tuesday, August 15, Mint Hill Town Engineer and Public Works Director Steve Frey led an information workshop on navigating roundabouts.

Construction of the roundabout at the intersection of Idlewild and 51 has been a hot topic this summer. Amidst road closures, delays in construction and reduced traffic for business located in the vicinity of the roundabout, many Mint Hill residents have questioned the wisdom of the project. But arguing about construction wasn’t on the agenda Tuesday night. “We are trying to educate people on how to navigate a roundabout,” said Frey. “The roundabout is under construction, so arguing to merits of whether we should build it or not – that’s not exactly a fruitful conversation at this point. We all need to make peace with it and figure out how to drive in it

Though roundabouts, also known as traffic circles, are common in the northeastern United States, the configuration may be new to many Mint Hill residents. Frey’s presentation focused on educating residents on how to navigate a roundabout safely and properly as well as addressing concerns about the new traffic pattern.

Although many may be unfamiliar with their benefits, roundabouts have been statistically proven to improve road safety, traffic flow and even air quality. Compared to a traditional four-way stoplight, roundabouts see a 39% decrease in crashes including 89% fewer fatal crashes and 74% fewer crashes resulting in life-altering injuries.

The roundabout currently under construction at the intersection of Idlewild Road and 51 connects two 45 mph roads. A crash at that speed could be fatal. Roundabouts are made to be traversed at a maximum speed of 25 mph, and their design drastically reduces the likelihood of head on and t-bone crashes. This means that roundabouts both decrease the likelihood of traffic accidents and, in large part, limit them to fender benders.

Another main benefit of a roundabout is improved traffic flow. On average, cars wait about 120 seconds at a stoplight. By eliminating this built-in delay, roundabouts decrease wait time by 2.5 times when compared to a stoplight. The improved flow of a roundabout and increased vehicle capacity work together to allow more cars through and lessen overall delays at an intersection.

Some of those present questioned if the Idlewild/51 roundabout would really improve the traffic situation at this busy intersection, particularly for those entering the roundabout from Idlewild at rush hour. John and Marilyn admitted that the intersection is a problem but weren’t convinced that the roundabout would fix it. “I really think the traffic’s too heavy,” said John, who admits he sometimes waits half an hour on 51 traveling home to Mint Hill from Matthews at the end of the day. “I’ll have to see it to believe it,” added Marilyn.

Though Frey admitted that motorists may still see some delays at peak hours, he was confident that the roundabout would improve rush hour traffic and virtually eliminate the random backups residents see throughout the day at the stoplight.

“They do work, they cycle the vehicles through,” said Frey, who cautioned motorists against imagining lines of cars backed up to enter the roundabout the way they backed up at the stoplight. “I think we are creating an entirely new intersection. It’s going to be entirely different than we know now.”

One added benefit of a roundabout that many people might overlook it its beneficial effect on the environment. Idling vehicles stopped at a light pump raw exhaust into the air, making them one of the top air pollutants. By reducing idle time, roundabouts are estimated to create 30% less pollution than stoplights.

Mint Hill will see two roundabouts completed in the near future. The first and probably most well known is the roundabout currently under construction at the intersection of Idlewild Road and 51. The “4 by 2” roundabout will accommodate four lanes of traffic on 51 and two lanes of traffic on Idlewild Road, making it sufficient to handle the eventual widening of 51 scheduled to take place in 2023.

The second roundabout, which is not yet under construction, will be built at the intersection of Lawyers and Bain School Roads. Construction on this roundabout will begin when the Idlewild/51 roundabout is complete. Unlike the Idlewild/51 roundabout, the intersection of Lawyers and Bain School Roads will remain open throughout construction. Although this intersection sees much traffic than Idlewild/51 – roughly 10,000-20,00 cars per day as compared to the 35,000 that pass through Idlewild Road and 51 – it was deemed a “high hazard,” causing about seven crashes per year. Additionally, the Lawyers/Bain School Road roundabout will be built to handle future development of the vacant land east of the intersection.

After reviewing the benefits of roundabouts and the details about their construction, Frey summed up the general principles for navigating a roundabout.

  • Slow down! Roundabouts are meant to be navigated at a maximum speed of 25 mph.
  • Yield to pedestrians in crosswalks when entering or exiting the roundabout.
  • Choose which lane to use when entering the roundabout based on your intended direction of travel. If you want to “turn right,” use the right hand lane. If you want to “turn left” or turn around completely (the roundabout version of a u-turn), use the left lane. In general, pay attention to signs and striping to determine the correct lane for you.
  • When entering the roundabout, yield to vehicles in all lanes.
  • Once you have entered the roundabout, stay in your lane. Do not switch lanes or pass in the roundabout. If you pick the wrong lane, it’s safer to continue through the roundabout and then turn around.
  • Do not stop in the roundabout.
  • If an emergency vehicle enters the roundabout with you, do not stop or attempt to pull over. Continue through the roundabout and pull to the side after you exit.
  • Give large vehicles like trucks extra room. Roundabouts have wider lanes as well as a concrete apron surrounding the center to accommodate trucks, but best practice is still not to travel directly beside a large vehicle.
  • Pedestrians should cross the roundabout only at designated crosswalks. Do not cross to the center and walk on the concrete meant for trucks.
  • Bicyclists may ride with the traffic in the roundabout, following the same rules as vehicles, or use walk their bikes across the crosswalk.

After the presentation, Frey invited audience members to the front to examine diagrams of both roundabouts and even helped individuals figure out exactly how to enter and exit the roundabout to get to their specific destinations. Charlotte resident Jane, who travels down Idlewild Road and across 51 to visit her daughter, was grateful for Frey’s help, but still a bit unsure. “He showed me to get in the left lane and go straight across,” said Jane. “I won’t feel comfortable until I do it,” she added. “I feel better about it.”

After the meeting, Frey helped individuals map out routes through the roundabout.

The Idlewild Road/51 roundabout is scheduled to open August 28. Expect to see an increased police presence in the area during its first days of use to ensure safe motoring. “If I had to sum up this meeting in one sentence,” said Frey, “it would be, ‘SLOW DOWN!” To learn more about roundabouts, consider viewing the youtube video “Navigating a Multi-Lane Roundabout:”

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Mary Beth Foster
Mary Beth Foster works part time as an essay specialist at Charlotte Latin School and full time as a mom to her five-year-old daughter Hannah and her two-year-old son Henry. Prior to having children, she worked as a high school English teacher for nine years. Most recently, she chaired the English department at Queen's Grant High School. She and her husband have lived in Mint Hill with their children and their cats since 2011. Email: