ResourcesDriving Advice & SafetyDriving WellPriority Chicanes: The Ultimate Guide
Driving Advice & Safety

Priority Chicanes: The Ultimate Guide

January 11, 2024

5 min read

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Leon McKenzie

Content Writer

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Cycle bypass priority chicane

With well over 30 million cars licensed for use on UK roads, there’s a lot of potential for busyness. And a lot of potential for people driving faster than they should. And a lot of potential for accidents. Not to put a downer on your day or anything.

With all that in mind, the government installs traffic calming measures to help change driver behaviour and slow down vehicles. One of these measures is the chicane: a type of lane narrowing that disrupts the normal flow of traffic and can force road users into one, single-file lane. You may be asked about priority chicanes on your theory test—or you might come across one on your practical driving test—so they’re something you need to be confident at tackling pretty early on.

Chicane meaning

Priority chicane: Give way to oncoming vehicles

Sometimes going back to basics can really help in understanding a concept. The word chicane comes from the French, meaning ‘to create difficulties’. We probably all know a few people who do that—but in the context of driving, it means to subvert traffic through obstacles.

There are two main types of chicanes:

Single-lane working chicanes which reduce a two-way road to just one lane. This gives vehicles travelling in one direction priority over those coming from the opposite way.

Two-way working chicanes where certain points in the road are narrowed, but traffic is still mostly able to flow in opposite directions.

Chicanes are often used in pairs or groups: priority is alternated between traffic coming from each direction. That way, neither direction is overly penalised, but the overall effect is that all drivers go slower.

What do chicanes look like?

Priority chicane: Island

If you’re going to use chicanes effectively, you’ve got to have a good idea about what they look like. Chicanes are man-made, and usually consist of a raised island (or ‘build-out’) positioned horizontally in your path. Essentially, they’re an obstacle you must manoeuvre around before you can continue in your normal road position—a bit like passing a parked car.

Understanding the theory

You might be asked the purpose of a chicane so it’s important that you understand its meaning and what exactly it’s trying to achieve. The theory test will also examine your knowledge of road signs and markings, so you need to be confident in identifying those symbols commonly used near chicanes.

What’s the point of chicanes?

Just like any traffic calming measures, the aim of a chicane is to reduce vehicle speed.

Chicane road signs

Although you may not always find road signs at a chicane, there are two different signs you’re likely to come across as you approach one. Which one you see depends on your direction of travel.

Where you have priority, the sign will be blue and rectangular: it provides information. It will depict two arrows: one pointing forwards (shown as upwards), in your direction. And the other, downward arrow, indicating road users approaching you from the opposite way.

Priorirty over oncoming vehicles sign

You’ll notice that the larger of the two arrows is the one pointing in your direction. That tells you that you have priority.

Interestingly, the sign you’ll come across in the opposite direction—where you don’t have priority—is circular, with a red outline. That means it’s a prohibition: you’re not allowed to do something. Here, that means that you must not assume priority. In other words, you must give way to oncoming traffic, as the larger of the two arrows is the one facing towards you (downwards).

Priority to vehicles from opposite direction road sign

There may well be accompanying text with the road signs reminding you of their purpose, but to be on the safe side, make sure you can identify them based on visuals alone.

Chicane road markings

Where you don’t have priority, you’ll see dotted, white lines painted on the road before it narrows. You should recognise these as Give Way markings, which indicate where you should pause to assess the situation. If a road user is approaching from the other side of the chicane, they have priority over you. You’ll therefore need to stop before the road markings, so that oncoming traffic can safely manoeuvre past you.

Guide to driving through chicanes

There are plenty of visual instructions to follow when approaching a chicane. We’ve already covered the road signs and markings, but you also need to be alert in case you come across an unmarked narrowing.

What does the highway code say about chicanes?

Cycle bypass priority chicane

The Highway Code deals with chicanes and other traffic calming measures—such as road humps—in Rule 153. It advises reducing your speed as you approach the feature, and maintaining this reduced speed until you have safely passed through the chicanes. You should drive in single file through the beds of a chicane and should not attempt to overtake anyone else.

It also stresses the importance of keeping an eye out for cyclists—who may or may not be able to bypass the chicane—and motorcyclists, who need space to pass through them.

Priority rules

Priority never means absolute right of way. It means that, all other things being equal, you should go first. But you still need to check that there are no vehicles already coming towards you through the chicane. If they are, you won’t fit through. Never compromise safety to squeeze through a questionable space—instead, sit back and wait your turn.

You probably won’t have road markings to show you where to stop, so you’ll have to use your judgement to assess how much space oncoming road users will need to get past.

Slow and steady

Giant tortoise

It’s a bit like pulling out onto a roundabout: when you see your chance, it’s time to go. But don’t race off the line: the road is still more narrow than usual, and requires you to go slowly.

Clutch control is an essential skill in driving through chicanes, particularly if you’re driving from standstill. Our hand-picked instructors can help you with this!


What other traffic calming measures are there?

Chicanes are just one of a range of traffic calming measures to encourage drivers to slow down on certain roads. Others include speed bumps (also known as speed humps or sleeping policemen), different forms of narrowings, speed cameras and rumble devices.

What does chicane mean in racing?

Racetracks feature chicanes for much the same purpose as ordinary roads: to slow people down. They are ‘s’ bends, usually placed on or after long straight sections of a track, where vehicles might otherwise reach unsafe speeds.

Where am I likely to come across priority chicanes?

Chicanes are mostly found in residential areas, where it's especially important to keep your speed low and under control. Remember, vulnerable road users are likely to be out and about in these locations, so keep your eyes peeled for pedestrians using the chicane islands as a crossing point.

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