A shoulder, hard shoulder or breakdown lane, is an emergency stopping lane by the verge of a road or motorway, on the right side in countries which drive on the right, and on the left side in countries which drive on the left. 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. Shoulders are not intended for use by through traffic, although there are exceptions.
Shoulders have multiple uses, including:
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 the paved section of the road and then overreacted after hitting the gravel. Modern practice is to build a continuous paved shoulder whenever possible.
The US 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 roadway. The Safety Edge is effective on roads where the shoulder is narrow or nonexistent.
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, and in most jurisdictions illegal, to abuse the shoulder by 'undertaking' passing vehicles that are nearer the center 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 (7.9 ft) wide, which is not wide enough for some automobiles—a standard lane in the U.S. and UK is 12 feet (3.7 m). 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 end result is often a traffic jam and occasionally a collision.
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); the term "bus-only shoulder lane" is incorrect from a technical and legal standpoint. 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–Saint Paul region of Minnesota, over 270 miles of shoulder have been designated for use by buses. The Route 9 BBS in Central New Jersey which runs along two stretches of shoulders are dedicated for exclusive bus use during peak hours. 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. In the Chicago area, Pace buses are authorized to use the shoulder of the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, Edens Expressway, and Stevenson Expressway to avoid traffic congestion.
In the Seattle area, Community Transit and Sound Transit Express commuter buses are authorized to use the shoulders of Interstate 5 and Interstate 405 on small segments in Snohomish County as part of a pilot project that aims to reduce delayed bus trips.
There are also some bus-bypass shoulders in the United Kingdom, on the motorways of Northern Ireland heading towards Belfast and the M90 motorway in Scotland towards Edinburgh.
In the United Kingdom, 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. Active traffic management with special signage, new turnouts (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. It has also proved popular with motorists, 60% of whom want to see it expanded to other English motorways. This 'smart motorway' system has been expanded to the M6, M1 and M25, as well as parts of the M60 and M62.
In the United States, on Interstate 93 between Exit 35 (formerly 41) and Exit 46 (formerly 43) and SR 3 between Exit 27 (formerly 12) and Exit 38 (formerly 16) 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 580 in California on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, on Interstate 66 in Virginia between the Capital Beltway and US-50, and on Interstate 405 between SR 527 and I-5 in Bothell.
Florida has developed a plan for the use of shoulders by moving traffic during hurricane evacuations on select portions of Interstate 4, Interstate 10, Interstate 75, and Interstate 95. The shoulder-use plan was implemented in place of labor- and resource-intensive contraflow lane reversal, in which both sides of an interstate highway are used for one direction of traffic. The first implementation of the plan occurred on 8–9 September 2017 before the arrival of Hurricane Irma. Texas has also considered emergency shoulder use for hurricane evacuations.
Although direct rear impacts only make up 3% of motorist-on-cyclist collisions, they are a more prominent collision type in arterial 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.
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. It is reported that the Danes have also found that separate cycle tracks lead to a reduction in rural collisions.
In some countries, the use of shoulders is optional for cyclists, who may choose not to use it for reasons such as: it being too narrow, inviting dangerously close passes at high speed by motorists; it having a road surface unsuitable for cycling or putting the path of the cyclist in direct conflict with the paths of other road users, such as those turning across the shoulder. 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 and the pavement may be broken.
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.
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 interchanges, or beneath overpasses) a solid yellow line is used, denoting additional restrictions on usage of the hard shoulder. At junctions and on-ramps and off-ramps, 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.
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 or rumble strips placed every few feet in order to provide additional visual and tactile feedback to drivers crossing the lines.
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 the dangerous tule fog).
Full width hard shoulders are usually provided only on motorways and are usually 3.3 metres (11 ft) wide, but there are exceptions. Some motorways do not have hard shoulders at all (for example the A57(M) and many smart motorways where the hard shoulder has been converted into a running lane) 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 reflectorized solid white line which is 20 centimetres (7.9 in) 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.
On many modern non-motorway roads, a hard strip is provided. These are usually 1 metre (3 ft 3 in) wide, and are bounded by thinner solid white lines, and often without a rumble strip.
The shoulders located on the sides of Italy's highways are normally used as emergency lanes in case of breakdown or by emergency vehicles in case of queues. According to the regulation in force, it is mandatory to wear a high visibility jacket when dismounting from a vehicle stopped in an emergency lane.
Normally one is not allowed to drive on the shoulder, but in case of traffic blockage, use of the shoulder is allowed to reach an exit if it is within 500 meters.
In France, roadway shoulders are usually 2.5 metres (8 ft 2 in) wide, or 3 metres (9.8 ft) wide when the roadway carries more than 2,000 vehicles per day. The main difference from other European countries is that the white line is dashed, typically 39 metres (128 ft) long with gaps 13 metres (43 ft) long. The design is intended to provide a guide for drivers to maintain a safe distance between vehicles. Road signs can be found along motorways, to indicate the safe distance (1 line = too close, 2 lines = safe distance). At some points (tunnel, bridge, narrow road with no shoulder, tight curve) the edge line becomes solid.
In a similar manner to Canada, Italy and the United States, 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 has revealed 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.