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§545.415 – BACKING A VEHICLE

(b) An operator may not back the vehicle on a shoulder or roadway of a limited-access or controlled-access highway.

Never, ever back-up on the freeway, even on the shoulder! Besides being illegal, this is extremely dangerous! Traffic is coming toward you at high-speed, and if you’re backing-up, you’re essentially going the wrong way and risk the equivalent of a head-on collision. If you miss your exit, just drive to the next exit, turn around, and go back. In most cases, you’ll only lose a couple of minutes. Next time, make sure you know where you’re going and pay attention to the signs.

Driving on the shoulder

§545.058 – DRIVING ON IMPROVED SHOULDER

(a) An operator may drive on an improved shoulder to the right of the main traveled portion of a roadway if that operation is necessary and may be done safely, but only:

(1) to stop, stand, or park;

(2) to accelerate before entering the main traveled lane of traffic;

(3) to decelerate before making a right turn;

(4) to pass another vehicle that is slowing or stopped on the main traveled portion of the highway, disabled, or preparing to make a left turn;

(5) to allow another vehicle traveling faster to pass;

(6) as permitted or required by an official traffic control device; or

(7) to avoid a collision

A common question I get, especially for newcomers to Texas, is whether it is legal to drive on the shoulder of a two-lane highway to allow other cars to pass as they have seen people doing. The answer is yes, it is, as declared in (a)(5) above. You’ll find that many long-time Texans will automatically move onto the shoulder when a faster car comes up behind them on a two-lane road. It’s just a common courtesy and helps the other person to pass them safely. However, there are some requirements to do this– the shoulder must be wide enough and free of debris or stalled or parked vehicles (it is generally illegal to park on highways outside of business or residential districts). If you do move onto the shoulder to allow someone to pass, reduce your speed a bit, keep a sharp eye out for any obstructions ahead, and move back into the main through lane as soon as it is safe to do so.

You are also allowed to briefly drive on the shoulder to pass a vehicle that is slowing or has stopped in the main lane to turn left or has stalled. Additionally, you can also drive on the shoulder to slow down to turn right, to speed up after turning onto the highway or after having stopped on the shoulder, or to avoid a collision (duh.)

You are not allowed to drive on the shoulder to overtake another moving vehicle (except as provided above). In other words, if the vehicle you are following will not move onto the shoulder to allow you to pass, then you must pass them on the left when it’s legal and safe to do so.

Using the shoulder to turn right in heavy traffic
One other frequent question is about using the shoulder to pass a long line of stopped traffic if you want to turn right at a driveway or the next intersection. Section (a)(4) above, on its face, does seem to allow for this. The main sticking point is the phrase “if that operation is necessary”. The statute doesn’t define what “necessary” is. However, there is case law that addresses this specifically. In Lothrop v. The State of Texas (2012), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (which is the supreme court in Texas for criminal cases) ruled that “necessary” had to be taken in context of the seven permissible reasons to drive on the shoulder. In other words, if you have to drive on the shoulder to pass a vehicle stopped in the main lane (as opposed to passing them on the left, for example), then that qualifies as “necessary”.

The other stipulation is that the maneuver be done “safely”. Again, the law does not define this specifically, so it’s open to interpretation. Typically, if there is no collision, then that could be considered prima facie evidence that it was done safely. A more affirmative defense would be that the driver ensured the shoulder was clear of obstructions and that they drove slowly. (My recommendation would be 20 mph– if it’s considered safe for a school zone, it’s certainly safe enough for passing stopped vehicles.)

Many officers I’ve spoken with tell me that because of the uncertainty of this law, they usually won’t cite for this or they will only cite someone who does this egregiously; for example, someone who is racing down the shoulder (which seems to violate the “be done safely” stipulation as discussed above), someone who gets on the shoulder well before the back of the line (because you’re not actually passing any vehicles at that point), or someone who continues on the shoulder through an intersection. (Those all seem like good reasons to me to get a ticket.) But some officers and departments will always cite for this and leave it to a judge to decide.

In short, while statutory and case law seems to allow this, it still seems to be a bit of a gray area in some jurisdictions, so YMMV and you should do this at your own risk.

 

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