Right of way rules on Chevy Chase Circle confound drivers, leading to ‘free-for-all’ -- Gazette.Net


In Chevy Chase Circle, honking horns and car crashes are chronic problems.

“It tends to be sort of a free-for-all when people hit it,” said John M. Fitzgerald, chief of the Chevy Chase Village Police Department. He is trying to publicize the rules for driving in the circle, which is on Connecticut Avenue on the Washington, D.C., line, to reduce the number of collisions in the circle.

“Motorists either don’t understand the right of way rules, or perhaps they just don’t care,” he said.

From 2007 through 2011, an average of about 28 collisions — or about one every two weeks — occurred on the Maryland side of the circle, according to Fitzgerald. That number does not include collisions on the Washington side of the circle.

Crashes happen most often when cars are trying to merge onto or off of Connecticut Avenue, Fitzgerald said. Unlike some traffic circles in the area, Chevy Chase Circle doesn’t have any exit-only lanes. Legally, drivers in the circle can travel the entire way around the circle in any of the three lanes as many times as they want without exiting. Those entering the circle have to yield the right of way to those already driving in it.

The only vehicles that have a right to exit from the circle are the ones traveling in the outside lane.

“Honking horns are our morning song here, because people just don’t yield the right of way,” Fitzgerald said.

At rush hour, when most drivers are taking Connecticut Avenue to or from Washington, they often assume everyone else is traveling the same way they are, Fitzgerald said. Drivers are allowed to exit the circle onto Connecticut Avenue from any of the three lanes, but those in the inside lanes should pay attention to what the cars in the outer lanes are doing, because they are not required to exit.

Navigating the circle takes drivers’ full attention, Fitzgerald said, and communicating with other drivers is key.

“We encourage heavy-duty turn signal use,” Fitzgerald said. “... If you’re going to leave the circle or change lanes in the circle, you can do that, [but] signal so people know what to expect.”

Even when drivers do have the right of way, Fitzgerald said, they should drive defensively, because other drivers might not be following the rules.

“The safe way to drive in the circle is to assume that the other car is going to do something you don’t want them to do,” he said. “... Drive with your head on a swivel, your hand on the horn and the other hand on the turn signal.”

If it’s not safe to exit, Fitzgerald said, don’t.

“Some people cannot imagine going around that loop one more time,” he said. “... It’s just a head-scratcher. The road’s not going anywhere.”

Likewise, drivers might be wise to follow the flow of traffic, especially at rush hour.

“It’s not just about being right — it’s about being smart,” Fitzgerald said.

An overview of the rules for Chevy Chase Circle is available in the news section of chevychasevillagemd.gov.