Joburg Traffic: What Do You Do in a Traffic Circle?

Something moved me to re-post an old blog post of mine, DOs and DONTs in Joburg Traffic, on my Facebook page the other day. In it I speak of potholes, street vendors, robots (the working and the non-working kind), minibus taxis, and yes, protecting yourself against smash-and-grabs.

It instantly became one of the most-viewed posts that week. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Joburg Traffic evokes such strong emotions – after all, as a Joburger, you spend half your life in it!

Then it occurred to me that there was actually one thing I missed about the dreaded Joburg traffic: traffic circles, or roundabouts.

I don’t know if it’s an African thing, or a South African thing, or just a Joburg thing, but traffic circles there work very differently – and, once you get the idea, better – than in the rest of the world. Noisette still doesn’t understand it to this day, but it is a brilliant concept. Because, you see, you don’t indicate with your blinker that you intend to get ONTO the traffic circle, you indicate which way you’re going to turn OFF of it.

Let’s say the traffic circle has 4 exits, 1 being the one you’re using to get onto it, 2 being the next one to the left – after all, you’re driving on the left side of the road – 3 being the one straight ahead, and 4 being the one turning to the right after you’ve made a three quarter turn. It’s exit 4 that I’d like to talk about. In most other places where there are traffic circles, you’d blink LEFT to get onto the circle (or right, in right-side-driving countries). You’d go around as far as you wished, and then you’d blink LEFT again to indicate where you’re getting off, just before you’re getting off. Not really much help to the people waiting on the outside wanting to get on.

In South Africa, in this particular situation you wouldn’t blink LEFT to get onto the circle. Duh, everyone knows you’re gonna get onto the circle, why should you have to indicate this? No, what you do if you intend to take exit 4 is you turn your blinker to RIGHT as soon as you drive onto the circle. Why? Well, this way the person waiting opposite from you will know that you intend to make the three quarter turn and pass him on your way, therefore making him wait. If you intended to take exit 2 instead (the left turn one), you’d blink left, thereby indicating to the person opposite that you are going to leave the circle BEFORE passing him, therefore allowing him to get onto the circle. Even if you’re using exit 3, going straight and not using your blinker, the person opposite could drive onto the circle while you get off at the same exit. Brilliant concept, speeding things up just a tiny bit in a place whose roads are clogged up all too often.

Because I know this all sounds crazy, here is a little back-of-the-envelope (literally) diagram I drew for you while sitting through yet another endless parent night at school:

traffic circles in South Africa and how they work
Joburg traffic circle. Now it all makes sense, right??

I do hope you get it, or I will seriously doubt my artistic prowess.

The person who first introduced me to this novel idea was, unexpectedly, my domestic helper. She was sitting in the passenger seat one day when we were running errands, and suddenly spoke up:

“You should have indicated to the right!”

We had just gone through the Dainfern Valley traffic circle coming home, and the above was the situation I faced multiple times every day. I had dutifully used my blinker as I was taught in my German driver training, which as you can imagine has rules for just about everything. “What does she know,” is what I was thinking at the time, “she probably doesn’t even drive.” But over the next few weeks, going through the same circle day-in day-out, it suddenly dawned on me: She was absolutely right! It made a ton of sense! Just as you would blink right when turning right at a regular intersection, why not blink right at a traffic circle too? It’s such a huge courtesy to the other drivers entering from different directions.

I have no idea why I felt so compelled to write this much about one silly such little thing a traffic circles, but somehow I wanted to share. In closing, there is another thing I miss about driving in South Africa: The warning-light-courtesy-blink-a-frenzy. Say you are on a long stretch of country road with a slow-poke car in front of you, and they see you behind them and pull over to the far left so that you can overtake them easily. You pass them, veer back over in front of them, and the first thing you do is fumble for your emergency lights so you can blink them a quick “thank you!” Typically, in response, they will then blink “you are welcome” back at you, and if you want to really be thorough, you might blink a quick acknowledgement of their reply to indicate you appreciate their politeness. This could go on and on except for the fact that you did overtake them for a reason and are probably by now out of sight so that the blinking may have an end. It can be quite distracting but I’ve found it to be such a feel-good thing to have this visual conversation with strangers on those lonely roads. It’s quite the opposite of road rage, isn’t it?

I’ve been told there are other countries where this happens too, but I can tell you this: It NEVER would happen in Germany. The only flashing lights you get in Germany are the headlights from the person behind you who is telling you, no DEMANDING, that you better move over from that left lane of the Autobahn to make room for his fancy and powerful Mercedes or he will climb RIGHT OVER YOUR CAR AND PULL YOU OUT FOR DARING TO BE SO SLOW!

Read more on Joburg traffic here

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