Rules of the Road

I’m not even going to Canada, is it OK to drive on the shoulder to avoid a backup?

U.S. Customs agents inspect cars traveling from Canada to the U.S. at the Blaine truck crossing border in 2001. The Revised Code of Washington has several laws that apply to driving on the shoulder of the road. Unfortunately, it’s usually not legal to do so, even if you’re waiting in a backup at the border and not going to Canada.
U.S. Customs agents inspect cars traveling from Canada to the U.S. at the Blaine truck crossing border in 2001. The Revised Code of Washington has several laws that apply to driving on the shoulder of the road. Unfortunately, it’s usually not legal to do so, even if you’re waiting in a backup at the border and not going to Canada. Staff

Question: Recently I was pulled over after I drove on the shoulder when I got stuck in a border lineup on the truck route (at the Blaine border crossing). I was given a warning and was told that it is illegal to drive on the shoulder, even if it is to avoid being stuck in a lineup to a location that I am not going to.

Blaine and other border towns frequently have long lineups not just on the state routes or Interstate, but on local roads next to schools, shopping and businesses. If you get stuck, you cannot do a U-turn to escape.

What is the law about using the shoulder of a road? Is there any accommodation to local residents who are not intending to go across the border?

Answer: As someone who encounters border lineups fairly frequently, I wish I could say there was a way to sneak past them when I’m not headed out of the country. Alas, the law has no provisions for the locals just trying to get home. (Well, maybe one. We’ll get to that later.)

The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) has several laws that apply to driving on the shoulder of the road. The most broad one is titled, “Driving with wheels off roadway.” That sounds like it might apply to back country off-roading, unless you already know the legal definition of “roadway.”

Within the context of the law, a roadway is defined as “that portion of a highway ... ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the sidewalk or shoulder ...” Simply, it’s the space between the fog lines.

With a clear understanding of what a roadway is, the title of the law pretty much explains it. But I’ll say it anyway: Driving on the shoulder is not allowed (with the exception of the driving involved in pulling off the road to stop or pulling back onto the roadway.)

On a side note, not to criticize how our laws are written, but check out a bit of unusual wording in the RCW: It is unlawful to drive “with one wheel or all of the wheels off the roadway.” Does that mean you’re okay if you have two or three wheels off the roadway? I’m guessing not.

There is also a law about passing other vehicles on the right. It lists a couple of situations where it’s legal to pass on the right: when the car in front of you is making a left turn andwhen there are two or more traffic lanes in the same direction. But it then includes this modifier: “Such movement shall not be made by driving off the roadway.”

Once again, the shoulder is a no-go.

In an effort to be comprehensive, I’ll mention one other law about driving on the shoulder (even though it isn’t relevant to the original question); this one offers a provision for slow-moving vehicles to drive on the shoulder and let other drivers pass. This option is limited to areas where the shoulders are improved and signs mark the beginning and end of the area where it’s okay to use the shoulder.

Now for the one possible option to escape the line-up: a U-turn. In your question, you mentioned that you couldn’t do a U-turn; if the line-up is two lanes wide and you’re in the right lane, you’re correct (and very stuck). However, unless posted otherwise, U-turns are legal as long as (to quote the RCW), “such movement can be made in safety and without interfering with other traffic.” If you have good visibility and see an opening in oncoming traffic, it’s legal to make a U-turn and pick a different route home.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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