Inside, Outside, Shake It All About

No, I’m not doing the Hokey-Cokey. I’m getting my head in knots about traffic circles.

Every Tuesday, someone from the Edmonton Police Service has an interactive session on Twitter to talk about the rules of the road. Today it was about traffic circles and the only thing that became clear to me is that no-one really understands the rules. Well, maybe the officer conducting the Twitter session does, but the rest of us are not entirely in agreement.

The Basketweave via Wikipedia, Lane

The biggest problem I had was in the use of the terms “inside” and “outside” when referring to traffic lanes. The confusion is created, in part, because these words have different meanings in the UK, Canada, and the US, and I have been a driver in all three places.

I once had to ask my brother-in-law in the US to stop giving me directions using “inside” and “outside” lanes when making a left turn because it made no sense to me. If the inside lane is the one next to the left turn median, then it becomes the outside land once you have turned, right? What was perfectly clear to him was clear as mud to me.

It is understood that a racetrack’s inside lane is the one closest to the middle of the track. Since races are run counter-clockwise, I just assumed that the inside lane on a traffic circle in Canada and the US would be the one closest to the centre of the circle. Well, not necessarily. It seems that the two countries interpret the terms differently. The inside lane might be the one on the right, closest to the sidewalk, depending on who is doing the talking.

Driving through Roundabouts from Ontario MTO Driver’s Handbook

In today’s Twitter discussion, when it came to how and when to take an exit, the explanation was: “The outside lane must use the immediate exit or the following exit but cannot proceed past the second exit. They must also yield to the inside vehicle. The car in the inside lane can exit the immediate exit or the second or the third exit. (no changing lanes either)”. Here it would seem that the inside lane is the one on the left and the outside lane is on the right, just as in a racetrack. If you think of a traffic circle as having inner and outer circles, this makes perfect sense. However, if you were in the US, the terminology would be reversed. I think.

Another explanation in the discussion confirmed the racetrack/Canadian view: “The outside lane (right-hand lane) cannot go past the second exit. It must leave via the first or second. The inside lane (left-hand lane) can exit any exit and has the right of way. The outside car must yield to the inside car.”

Driving Around a Traffic Circle from ArriveAlive.Mobi (South Africa)

The problem with this, though, is that this seems to apply only to traffic circles. Once on the highway, the inside lane is on the right and the outside lane is the passing lane on the left. Are you confused yet? I know I am.

It is somewhat encouraging to realize I am not alone in this. If you Google “inside and outside lanes” you will find that others have the same problem. You will also find it dawning on people in discussion forums that the terms are not universally understood.

There is no official definition of inside and outside lanes in Canada. That makes sense to me because the terms themselves do not make sense to me. I have decided never to talk about inside and outside traffic lanes ever again. From now on, I’m only talking about left and right and maybe making that L shape with my thumb and forefinger, just to be sure.

Knees bend, arms stretch, rah rah rah.


  1. Trust me …. here in South Africa, most of our locals struggle with Traffic Circles or Roundabouts as I know them – as well.
    As I am from the UK, it drives me nuts that most drivers who have all had to pass a driving test are a bunch of half-wits when it comes to traffic circles. Most of them either disregard any road rules because of ignorance or treat them like a bloody four way stop street.

    • The problem seems to be most apparent at two (or more) lane circles. People with differing views seem equally convinced of the rightness of their opinions, especially when discussing how to exit from a left lane (in Canada).

      • And pushing the point maybe result in some fender benders and a spot of road rage!
        Could be worse, you could be driving around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris!

        • I was just informed on the Twittersphere that I was overthinking this. Sigh.

          When I was in my late teens, I was cheerfully driving around London and the multiple lanes of traffic in some roundabouts. The rules seemed more logical then. I don’t know if it is because the traffic was less dense, the rules were different, or I was more confident.

  2. HA! I saw this whole thing on Facebook and my head hurts!!
    My driver trainer told me the city would be phasing the traffic circles out in a bit because a. they are an impediment to traffic flow now that the city has grown and b. nobody knows how to drive them. They plain old stress me out!

  3. It never occurred to me that inside and outside could be understood differently in different places! That’s so confusing 😣 This was a very informative post!

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