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Shoulder (road)

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Shoulder (road)

A shoulder, often serving as an emergency stopping lane, is a reserved lane by the verge of a road or motorway, on the right in countries which drive on the right, or on the left side in Japan, the UK, Australia, and other left-side driving countries. Many wider U.S. freeways have shoulders on both sides of each directional carriageway, in the median as well as at the outer edges of the road, for additional safety. Typically the shoulder is not for use by moving traffic.

Shoulders have multiple uses, including:

  • In the event of an emergency or breakdown, a motorist can pull into the shoulder to get out of the flow of traffic and obtain a greater degree of safety.
  • Emergency vehicles such as ambulances and police cars may use the shoulder to bypass traffic congestion.
  • Active traffic management, used on busy multi-lane roads, may allow 'hard shoulder running' by general traffic at reduced speeds during periods of high traffic volumes.
  • In some places a 'Bus bypass shoulder' may be provided which allows bus services to pass stationary traffic.
  • Paved shoulders provide additional space should a motorist need to take evasive action (such as avoiding a wrong-way driver) or need to recover control of their vehicle before a run-off-road collision occurs.
  • In some urban areas, shoulders are used as travel lanes during peak commuting hours.
  • In some rural areas without sidewalks, pedestrians and cyclists may be allowed to walk or ride on the shoulders.
  • On curbed roadways, shoulders move the gutter away from the travel lanes which reduces the risk of hydroplaning, and reduces splash and spray of stormwater onto pedestrians using any adjacent sidewalk.
  • Paved shoulders move water away from the roadway before it can infiltrate into the road's subbase, increasing the life expectancy of the road surface.
  • Shoulders help provide extra structural support of the roadway.


  • General characteristics 1
  • Bus bypass shoulder 2
  • Peak period use by all traffic 3
  • Increased cyclist safety 4
    • Road shoulders 4.1
    • Where is the road edge? 4.2
  • Characteristics in various countries 5
    • Republic of Ireland 5.1
    • United States 5.2
    • United Kingdom 5.3
    • Italy 5.4
    • Australia 5.5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

General characteristics

In Ireland, dashed yellow lines demarcate hard shoulders on non-motorways, as can be seen along this dual carriageway on the N11.

The shoulder is usually slightly narrower than a full traffic lane.

In some cases, particularly on older rural roadways, shoulders that initially existed were hardened with gravel rather than being paved with asphalt or concrete. In Britain, motorway shoulders are now paved, but are still known as 'hard shoulders.' Older, gravel shoulders have sometimes been termed soft shoulders by comparison. Because the paved surface ends at that point, they are less safe if they need to be used for emergency maneuvers. Notably, the section of Ontario Highway 401 between Windsor and London had soft shoulders with a sharp slope which was blamed for facilitating vehicle rollovers, if drivers accidentally drifted off of the paved section of the road and then overreacted after hitting the gravel. Modern practice is to build a continuous paved shoulder whenever possible.[1]

The U.S. Federal Highway Administration encourages the placement of a Safety Edge — a 30° compacted taper on the end of the pavement dropoff — to ensure that any driver running off the edge of the roadway is better able to maintain control while trying to steer back onto the pavement. The Safety Edge is effective on roads where the shoulder is narrow nor nonexistent.[2]

To save money, the shoulder was often not paved to the same thickness as the through lanes, so if vehicles were to attempt to use it as a through lane regularly, it would rapidly deteriorate. In Britain, shoulder running can occur during roadworks, and full depth construction is now standard. In some metro areas, road authorities also allow shoulders to be used as lanes at peak periods. However, rural shoulders often collects various bits of road debris that can make driving there less safe.

Drivers will sometimes drift into the shoulder when being overtaken by passing vehicles, particularly on two-lane roads. However, it is extremely unsafe, as well as illegal, to abuse the shoulder by 'undertaking' passing vehicles that are nearer the centre of the road.

On older roads, the shoulder may disappear for short periods, near exits or when going across or under bridges or tunnels where the cost savings were thought to outweigh the safety benefits of the shoulder. Some roads have a narrow shoulder for significant distances. This makes it difficult for large vehicles to pull into the hard shoulder altogether.

The Jingjintang Expressway in northeastern China is an example of this phenomenon. Its shoulder is only 2.4 metres wide, which is not wide enough for some automobiles. (A standard lane in the US and UK is 12 feet or 3.65 metres.) As a result, some motorists are unable to fully exit the mainline when they need to pull over, so they end up in a position that is halfway in the rightmost lane and only partly on the shoulder. The result is often a traffic jam and occasionally a collision.

Bus bypass shoulder

In some jurisdictions in the United States and Canada, buses are allowed to drive on the shoulder to pass traffic jams, which is called a bus-only shoulder or bus-bypass shoulder (BBS);[3] the term "bus-only shoulder lane" is incorrect from a technical and legal standpoint.[4]

In Ontario, Highway 403 had its shoulders between Hurontario Street and Erin Mills Parkway widened in 2003 so they serve a dual-purpose as bus lanes and accident lanes. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul region of Minnesota, over 270 miles of shoulder have been designated for use by buses.[5] The Route 9 BBS in Central New Jersey which runs along two stretches of shoulders are dedicated for exclusive bus use during peak hours.[6][7] The bus lanes, which run for approximately 3 miles (4.83 km) are the first component of a planned 20-mile (32.19 km) BBS corridor.[8]

Peak period use by all traffic

On specially signed sections of highway in the Boston Metro Area, cars are allowed to use the shoulder as they would a normal lane during morning and evening rush hours. The same scheme is employed elsewhere, such as on Interstate 66 in Virginia between the Capital Beltway and US-50.

In the UK, usage of the hard shoulder is known as hard shoulder running. A pilot project on an 11-mile stretch of the M42 motorway, near Birmingham began in September 2006. Special signage, new laybys and a variable speed limit have been put in place to improve safety. This has proved very successful, with journey times decreasing by 26% northbound and 9% southbound. Drivers can also better predict their journey times as the variability decreased by 27%. The average accident rate dropped from 5.2 to 1.5 per month.[9] It has also proved popular with motorists, 60% of whom want to see it expanded to other English motorways. The system has been expanded to the M6,[10] M1[11] and M25,[12] with plans to implement it to parts of M60 and M62 by 2015.[13]

Increased cyclist safety

Direct rear impacts with cyclists are a more prominent collision type in arterial/rural road type situations. When they occur in such circumstances they are also associated with significantly increased risk of fatality. Data collated by the OECD indicates that rural locations account for 35% or more of cycling fatalities in Denmark, Finland, France, Great Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, and Spain.[14]

The use of appropriately designed segregated space on arterial or interurban routes appears to be associated with reductions in overall risk. In Ireland, the provision of hard shoulders on interurban routes in the 1970s reportedly resulted in a 50% decrease in accidents.[15] It is reported that the Danes have also found that separate cycle tracks lead to a reduction in rural collisions.[16]

Road shoulders

Shoulders are useful to bicyclists traveling on roads that do not have a dedicated bike lane. However, cyclists are not required to ride in a shoulder. Again, debris often collects in a road’s shoulder, and a cyclist will avoid these hazards by riding in the lane of vehicular traffic.[17]

Where is the road edge?

Normally, slower traffic keeps to the right, and faster traffic passes on the left. Since cyclists are usually slower than other traffic, they ride near the right edge of the road. Generally, the usable width of the road begins where one can ride without increased danger of falls, jolts or blowouts. A road may have a gravel shoulder, its edge may be covered with sand or trash or the pavement may be broken.[18]

Shoulders are optional use for cyclists and should never be considered safe. Some shoulders are too narrow to safely ride in and invite dangerously close passing at high rates of speed from motorists. Some shoulders are unsuitable for cycling on due to the composite. Shoulders are not intended to be driven on and are made of a lower quality material than the travel lane. This material quickly erodes and creates unsafe surfaces to cycle on. Cycling on the shoulder puts you in conflict with motorists who are turning right or left into an adjoining roadway. Think of shoulders as sidewalks. They are optional and if you feel safer there, then you are allowed to be there. If you don't feel safe there, you are not required to ride there. The travel lane belongs to all vehicles.

Direct rear impacts only make up 3% of motorist on cyclists collisions. 11% is the percentage of total motorist on cyclist collisions. [19]

Characteristics in various countries

Republic of Ireland

A junction on the M4 motorway in Ireland, with an unbroken yellow line (that peels away and follows the sliproad) demarcating the hard shoulder.

Full-width hard shoulders are provided on most new, upgraded (from the 1980s onwards), and major national roads in the Republic of Ireland, especially on wide two-lane and dual-carriageway roads (the shoulders on most 2+1 roads are narrow however). They are defined within the official document the Rules of the Road as a part of the road that should normally only be used by cyclists and pedestrians. Their provision of on interurban routes in the 1970s reportedly resulted in a 50% decrease in accidents involving pedal cyclists.[15]

The hard shoulder is usually demarcated by road markings in the form of a single dashed yellow line with the addition of yellow cat's eyes. On motorways, and at critical points on other routes (e.g. between junctions or sliproads, or beneath overpasses) a solid yellow line is used, denoting additional restrictions on usage of the hard shoulder. At junctions and sliproads, the yellow line peels away into the turn, with a dashed white line (with green cats' eyes) denoting a lane division following the main route (i.e. in most cases the road remains the same width, and a turn lane takes the place of the hard shoulder).

In the 2000s, Bus Éireann coaches were allowed to use the hard shoulders on national roads into Dublin. However, dedicated bus lanes are now present on sections of some routes, such as the N7 Naas Road, and such use of actual hard shoulder is not universal.

United States

The break in the shoulder line used by California to warn of upcoming freeway exits in foggy areas

The right-hand shoulder is separated by a solid white line, and the left-hand shoulder (if the road is one-way, such as part of a divided highway) is separated from the leftmost through lane by a solid yellow line. On many roads the lines are supplemented by reflective raised pavement markers placed every few feet in order to provide additional visual and tactile feedback to drivers crossing the lines.

Normally one is not allowed to drive on the shoulder but in the case of traffic block, in some jurisdictions, use of the shoulder may be allowed for the purpose of reaching an exit if the exit is within 200 feet.

On freeways in foggy areas of California, there is an obvious break in the line of the shoulder before every exit; this is to help drivers find their exits in heavy fog (especially dangerous tule fog).

United Kingdom

Full width hard shoulders are usually provided only on motorways and are usually 3.3 metres wide, but there are exceptions. Some motorways do not have hard shoulders at all (for example the A57(M)) and there are a small number of dual carriageway A-roads which do possess hard shoulders (for example, parts of the A1, A2 and A27). Hard shoulders are always marked with a reflectorised solid white line which is 20 cm wide and is provided with a rumble strip. A line of red cats' eyes is also used, and is placed to the side of the line. Sometimes, a hard shoulder will be coloured differently (usually red) to that of the main carriageway lanes.

On many modern non-motorway roads, a hard strip is provided. These are usually 1 metre wide, and are bounded by thinner solid white lines, and often without a rumble strip.


The shoulder located on the side of Italy's highway is normally used as emergency lane in case of breakdown or is used by emergency vehicles in case of queues. According to the regulation in force it is mandatory wear a high visibility jacket when dismounting from the vehicle stopped on emergency lane.[20]

Normally one is not allowed to drive on the shoulder but in case of traffic block, use of the shoulder is allowed to reach an exit if the exit is within 500 metres.


In a similar manner to Italy and the United States, as described above, the shoulders located on the side of Australia's highways are normally used as an emergency lane in the case of a breakdown or by emergency vehicles in the case of road congestion. However, no mandatory regulations exist to wear a high visibility jacket when dismounting from the vehicle stopped in an emergency lane.

A recent study conducted by the National Coroners Information System (NCIS) in Australia [21] has revealed twenty-nine (29) closed case fatalities (and at least a dozen case fatalities still under coronial investigation) that had been reported to Australian coroners where a person was "struck in an emergency lane after their vehicle had stopped" between July 2000 and November 2010.[22]

See also


  1. ^ Questia, Your Online Research Library
  2. ^ Federal Highway Administration. "Safety Edge Introduction - Every Day Counts". Retrieved 2013-01-22. 
  3. ^ "A shoulder to drive on". Traffic Technology Today. Retrieved 2013-04-01. 
  4. ^ Bus-Only Shoulders (Minnesota Department of Transportation)
  5. ^ Bus-Only Shoulders in Minneapolis-St. Paul
  6. ^ "NJDOT to open Route 9 Bus shoulder lanes in Old Bridge" (Press release). New Jersey Department of Transportation. November 29, 2006. Retrieved 2012-03-03. 
  7. ^ Synthesis 64: Bus shoulder lanes, Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, 2007 
  8. ^ Baldwin, Zoe (July 10, 2009). "New Jersey gradually clearing away obstacles to bus rapid transit". Mobilizing the Region. Tri-State Transportation Campaign. Retrieved 2014-04-04. 
  9. ^ Extra lane' plan to be extended BBC News
  10. ^ Hard shoulders opens on busy M6 by Birmingham BBC News
  11. ^ Highways Agency M1 Junction 10-13 Project status Highways Agency
  12. ^ Highways Agency M25 Junction 23-37 Project status Highways Agency
  13. ^ HIGHWAYS AGENCY News Release issued by COI News Distribution Service on 21 March 2011
  14. ^ Figure IV.7 Pedestrian and cyclist accidents by road type. RS7:Safety of Vulnerable Road Users, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, August 1998
  15. ^ a b The bicycle, a study of efficiency usage and safety., D.F. Moore, An Foras Forbatha, Dublin 1975
  16. ^ Collection of Cycle Concepts, Danish Roads Directorate, Copenhagen, 2000
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ "Art 162 Codice della Strada". Archived from the original on 2008-06-06. Retrieved 2007-06-12. 
  21. ^ National Coroners Information System, NCIS
  22. ^ Deaths in Emergency Lanes - National Coroners Information System (NCIS) Fact-Sheet, January 2011

External links

  • Traffic Signs about Shoulders
  • Deaths in Emergency Lanes - National Coroners Information System (NCIS) Fact-Sheet, January 2011
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