Roundabouts are much safer than regular intersections. There is not much debate about that fact in the Netherlands. But when it comes to the priority rules on roundabouts the opinions differ sometimes. Why does cycling need to get the right of way over motor traffic on roundabouts? This guideline from the Dutch Ministry of Transport, “causes many unnecessary victims among people cycling”, a small minority of opponents claims. Is that true? Or do Dutch road safety experts, cycling advocates and most of the authorities maybe look at a bigger piture?
Every now and then the discussion flares up about the priority of cycling on roundabouts. In the Netherlands the guidelines are clear: in the built-up area cycling must have priority over motor traffic and outside the built-up area it is the other way around. This was established in 1998 and the most important reason is that this follows the basic traffic law. Traffic going straight-on on the same road has priority over traffic turning off that road. A roundabout is considered a (circular) road and if you stay on the roundabout you therefore go straight-on. That means a cyclist has priority over motor traffic leaving that roundabout while crossing the path of the cyclist, just like with any other side street. Only if the cycleway around the roundabout would be over 10 metres away from that roundabout it would clearly stop being the same road and this basic priority rule no longer applies. In the built-up area there is usually no space to build the cycleway that far from a roundabout meaning cycling must get priority over motor traffic.
This is the view of the Ministry of Transport, the Cyclists’ Union and most important Dutch traffic institutes such as CROW, which writes the road design manuals. There is only one major institution, SWOV, which disagrees. (Incidentally, this institution also has the differing minority view on cycling helmets, which in the Netherlands means they are pro-helmet.) Unfortunately, the municipalities also don’t all agree with the guidelines. This leads to different rules in different municipalities and that causes crashes. TV station RTL investigated the available crash reports on roundabouts and they found 67 roundabouts with more than ten crashes, or more than 5 crashes in which people were injured, in the past 4 years. Interestingly most of those crashes took place on roundabouts which did not comply with the guidelines. That was no surprise to the Cyclists’ Union and other cycling advocates who keep urging municipalities to follow the national guidelines.
The municipality of Tilburg had long chosen to not follow the guidelines, but recently announced that it will start to change almost all of its roundabouts to give cycling priority. This measure is part of a number of road safety improving measures which also include speed reductions around schools and improving pedestrian crossings used by many elderly. The change in the city’s policies was welcomed by local cycling advocates.
Riding on a roundabout in ’s-Hertogenbosch (360 degree video part 1).
The province of Drenthe in the north of the country keeps stubbornly following its own ideas. Disappointing the local branch of the Cyclists’ Union with a meagre answer to their questions about the reasoning behind the Province’s differing view. The answer took almost a year to arrive and a Cyclists’ Union representative writes about it: “It is clear that for Drenthe the flow of motor traffic is more important than cycling.” Regarding the uniformity the province claims to want to achieve he adds: “this would also need to be observed in the roundabout design. In all of the Netherlands (and more and more municipalities in the north) cycling has priority in the built-up area. In the province of Drenthe that is not the case, not leading to more uniformity but rather causing confusion, with even more accidents as a result.”
Roundabouts with a separate ring for cycling are in accordance with the Dutch Sustainable Safety principles. They separate traffic types with a big difference in mass and speed as much as possible and (thanks to the tight radius) reduce the speeds in such a way that the consequences of a possible crash are less severe than they would be at higher speeds. When an ordinary four-arm intersection is converted into a roundabout it will reduce the number of crashes with 50%. When it comes to injuries and deaths the figure is even more impressive. There will be a reduction of over 80% in casualties. Roundabouts are therefore an undisputed measure to dramatically improve the traffic safety on intersections. But is there a difference in safety for roundabouts with priority and those without priority for cycling?
Riding on a roundabout in ’s-Hertogenbosch (360 degree video part 2).
CROW and the Ministry of Transport asked an independent consultancy to investigate this again. The report was published in November 2019 and shows that in general the roundabouts in the Netherlands are very safe. According to DTV Consultants only on 1.6% of the over 5,585 roundabouts there were 3 or more reported crashes leading to severely injured cyclists in the years 2015 to 2018.
The investigators were surprised by the enormous variety in designs. Because recognising traffic situations quickly to improve safety is part of the Dutch national road safety policies that is not what you would expect. Another remarkable finding was that on roundabouts with two-way cycling fewer crashes were reported than those with a one-way cycle path around them. Of all the roundabouts in the built-up area less than half, or 45.6%, have a one-way cycle path around it. On 37.2% there is a full two-way cycle path and on 17.2% a partial one. The fact alone that so many two-way cycle paths on roundabouts exist is unexpected, because this goes against the advice of the CROW manual. That also fewer crashes are reported than on the ones with only a one-way cycle path is even more remarkable.
Riding on a roundabout in ’s-Hertogenbosch (360 degree video part 3).
Of the 2,448 roundabouts in the built-up area 1,699 are designed with priority for cycling and 749 without (see map). In the time period of 2015 to 2018, the number of reported crashes with at least one person cycling was as follows in these four years. On roundabouts with priority it was 0.73 and on roundabouts without priority it was 0.18. At first glance this would be a huge difference, but a number of factors, such the traffic volumes are not taken into account. It could be much busier on roundabouts with priority leading to this higher number of crashes. Another factor is that many roundabouts are being reconstructed and the investigation is based on pictures (e.g. from Google) that do not always show the current state of the roundabouts. (This is the case in one of the roundabouts I filmed. It has on-street cycle lanes on Google but a separate cycleway in reality; see video part 3.) However, experts who interpret the figures do think that more crashes take place on roundabouts with priority for cycling. So, does that mean the Dutch should change their policies immediately? No, it does not. One of the experts states: “Priority for cycling on roundabouts? Don’t change a thing!”
Why not? Well, things are usually not so simple as they first appear. Last year it was reported that two thirds of the cycle deaths in the Netherlands are among people over the age of 50. Should we forbid people over 50 to cycle? No, because that would lead to more deaths related to diseases caused by inactivity. No wonder the Dutch government tries to get more elderly people to cycle safely, not fewer. They even subsidise programs such as “Doortrappen” (Cycle on) to achieve just that, although from a traffic safety point of view that would be ill-advised.
Riding on a roundabout in ’s-Hertogenbosch (360 degree video part 4).
Apart from observing the basic rule about priority which I mentioned earlier, there are other reasons to give cycling priority on roundabouts with a cycleway around the inner ring. Cycling advocates often mention comfort for cycling. Not having to stop means you loose less energy. Another reason is uniformity. There are still a lot of roundabouts in the Netherlands with a coloured cycle lane, mostly due to space restraints. Cycling on those on-street cycle lanes always has priority due to that basic traffic rule. There is no exception to that rule possible. To have a different rule when the cycleway is in a separate ring around the roundabout makes no sense and could lead to confusion and crashes. Yet another argument in favour of priority is the fact that most roundabouts have a zebra crossing just outside the roundabout on which pedestrians have priority over motor traffic. It is unwanted to have a different priority arrangement for a cycle crossing right next to such a zebra crossing. It would be even more unwanted to eliminate that difference by taking away that priority for the pedestrian.
The most important reason, however, is that this gives cycling an advantage over motor traffic. The Dutch do all they can to make cycling more attractive than using the car, especially in their towns and cities. More cycling leads to a more liveable society and a healthier population. Even though the difference in crashes seems huge at first, there is really not much to gain when the priority rules would be changed, because only 2 percent of the yearly number of 13,000 to 14,000 seriously injured people on bicycles were injured on a roundabout, with or without priority. The arguments of comfort and all the other reasons therefore outweigh the arguments for traffic safety, according to most Dutch experts and advisers. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t do better, but the improvements should be sought in designing roundabouts more uniformly and making drivers of motor vehicles more aware of their obligations to look and to give others the right of way, not in giving drivers priority.
Riding on a roundabout in ’s-Hertogenbosch (regular video)