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When and why were roundabouts invented and how do roundabouts help traffic?

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Roundabouts in the playground are lots of fun, but the roundabouts we drive around on the roads are a clever way to manage traffic at intersections where roads meet.  They help everyone get where they need to go safely, and often much more quickly than at junctions with traffic lights.

And they don’t just help drivers! Roundabouts are safer for pedestrians too, because unlike at a road junction where traffic may be coming from several different directions, traffic enters and leaves roundabouts in the same direction, making it easier to cross. 

They also help vehicles use less fuel because they keep traffic moving along as opposed to sitting in queues at lights.  

We don’t know who invented the very first roundabout or if they liked playground rides, but we DO know they’ve been around for a long time!  

An 18th century inventor called Pierre L’Enfant designed what became known as “traffic circles” in Washington DC. Of course, back then the main form of traffic had four legs and a tail.

The design was revived in 1905 in New York City with the Columbus Circle – one of the first traffic circles designed for cars. After this, roundabouts began to spring up across the world, and in 1909 Britain got its first roundabout in Letchworth Garden City.

You might think a circle’s pretty basic but the design is perfect to help make roads safe. Traffic is forced to slow down as drivers wait for a safe space to join the roundabout. This means fewer crashes, and if crashes do happen, they’re often less severe.

Where roundabouts are near motorways, there are slip roads or curves in the shape of the road to help vehicles slow down to a safe speed.

Technology will never replace roundabouts but can change how we use them, for example with improved signage and flexibility to increase the number of lanes available at busy times. 

In the future, digital information can even help predict when those busy times will be.

MOBILE: Kids Guide to Transport: Rail and Road

Bex and Dan learn all about the future of Britain's roads and railways!

Are We There Yet? with support from the Royal Academy of Engineering

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Road to 2050

Find out more about why roads are built and how they help us get around the country.

More From Road to 2050