Roundabout Trap

February 1, 2019

Roundabouts remain an unsettling experience for many Wisconsin motorists. Who gets to go where and when can be something of a mystery. Signage on roundabouts is often less than helpful in solving that mystery.

Statutes on right-of-way enacted by Wisconsin’s legislature in recent years add to the confusion and create a trap for the unwary and uninformed. The latter category probably includes most motorists.

The new laws added a specific provision for semi-trucks in roundabouts to section 346.18 of the Wisconsin statutes, which sets forth the general rules governing right-of-way. The new section 346.18(8), states the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a vehicle that is not less than 40 feet in length or 10 feet in width when both vehicles approach a roundabout at approximately the same time. If necessary, the other vehicle shall reduce speed or stop in order to yield to the semi.

The statute raises real concerns. First, and perhaps foremost, the general public is largely unaware of this requirement while many truckers now believe they have the right-of-way in these situations. That creates a potentially lethal hazard, as it is all too common for truckers to cross lanes as they attempt to negotiate a roundabout.

There is a notable exception to the new law, but it is questionable whether either the trucking industry or law enforcement is sufficiently aware of that exception.

Section 346.13 covers driving on roadways laned for traffic. That statute provides in general terms that the operator of a vehicle shall drive as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane, and shall not deviate from the traffic lane, without first ascertaining that such movement can be made with safety.

At the same time it enacted section 346.18(8), the legislature enacted section 346.13(5). That section provides “notwithstanding sub. (1), the operator of a vehicle or combination of vehicles with a total length of not less than 40 feet or a total width of not less than 10 feet may, with due regard for all other traffic, deviate from the lane in which the operator is driving to the extent necessary to approach and drive through a roundabout.” This language shifts the burden to the driver of the semi when a roundabout has traffic lanes within it, as many do. Under those circumstances the semi may deviate, but only with due regard for all other traffic. That stands in stark contrast to the language of section 346.18(8)(a), which essentially gives broad right-of-way to a semi in an unmarked roundabout.

Section 346.18(8) was clearly drawn to favor the trucking industry over ordinary motorists. Section 346.13(5) modifies the broad right-of-way for truckers contained in section 346.18(8)(a) in the case of laned roundabouts. The provisions were enacted at the same time and the more specific provisions of section 346.13(5) would govern where a roundabout has lanes. That notwithstanding, the laws are likely to be a source of confusion to the average motorist, and unfortunately a potential source of mayhem, as well.