The shoulder of a road is an emergency stopping line next to the travel lanes. A soft shoulder sign lets drivers know that the side of the road is made from material other than asphalt. In some areas, a soft shoulder sign indicates that road conditions increase the danger of stopping on the shoulder. It's a warning sign that drivers should be careful.
Hard vs. Soft Shoulders
Sometimes the shoulder is a paved extension of the main road. One example of this is what some call the emergency lane on an interstate highway. Soft shoulders may be made from gravel, dirt or other graded materials. When deciding details like the type of material to use for the shoulder and the width of the lane, engineers consider how the shoulder is used and the types of vehicles on the road.
The Purpose of Road Shoulders
A road shoulder meets several needs of drivers. First, it protects the road surface by adding lateral support to the pavement and keeping water away from the road surface. It also acts as a temporary parking area for disabled vehicles or for those who want to stop to enjoy scenic views.
Emergency Uses for Shoulders
A paved shoulder can also be used as a driving lane in emergency situations. For example, as Hurricane Irma approached the coast of Florida in 2017, the state government opened the shoulders of the interstates to traffic. This increased capacity on the interstate so more people could evacuate to safer areas.
The Dangers of Soft Shoulders
It's important for drivers to know whether the shoulder is paved or unpaved. If they have to pull over because of a flat tire, avoid a collision or stop to take a picture, they'll know what to expect when the vehicle crosses the lane boundary. When the road has a soft shoulder, drivers must be careful pulling off the main road because shifts in slope and road material can make them lose control of the vehicle.
Tips for Emergency Stopping
Dealing with a disabled vehicle on the side of the road is more than an inconvenience. It also can be dangerous. In the event of an emergency, drivers should take a few precautions to keep themselves and their passengers safe. This includes stopping under a street light if possible, turning on hazard lights and staying inside the vehicle until help arrives or it's absolutely necessary to get out.