All too often we are called upon to investigate or defend trucking accidents involving a truck merging back onto a highway from the shoulder.  We must all be reminded that shoulders on the sides of highways are frequently referred to as “emergency lanes.”  Regardless of whether a passenger vehicle or tractor trailer needs to utilize a shoulder, this means that shoulders are to be used for emergencies only.  They are not to be used for texting, typing on a mobile device/laptop, using your cell phone, eating, sleeping, complying with hours of service regulations, or any other non-emergency reason.  

This issue is compounded in Pennsylvania due to the lack of available truck parking.  Oftentimes, along shoulders approaching and leaving rest areas, tractor trailers are parked for reasons related to hours of service compliance.  Considering the rise in e-commerce and Pennsylvania’s plentiful warehouses and convenient access to major cities on the east coast, the problem will only get worse before a solution is reached.  Accordingly, this article focuses on proper use of a shoulder by a truck driver in an emergency situation. 

Pulling Over

When a truck driver encounters the misfortune of an emergency and a shoulder is the only option for the driver to stop, there are several steps that must be taken in order to protect the driver, the equipment, and other motorists.  First, the driver must make sure he can safely enter the shoulder without causing a sudden disruption in the flow of traffic.  In other words, no sudden or hard braking.  Instead, engage the right turn signal or hazard lights then slowly decelerate until it is safe to pull over onto the shoulder. 

Next, the driver must make sure that the entire truck is completely removed from the travel lanes as far away from the fog line or traffic as possible. If it has not been done so already, Section 392.22(a) of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations requires that the driver immediately activate the hazard lights.  Then, if the driver can exit the vehicle safely, preferably on the side of the tractor trailer farthest from traffic, the driver should put on a reflective/high visibility vest and then set up hazard warning devices behind the truck (triangles, flares, lanterns, etc.). The Federal regulations, at Section 393.95, require commercial vehicles to have hazard warning devices onboard at all times.  Especially at night, when setting up the warning devices, the driver should hold them in front of their body to alert on-coming traffic of their presence. 

As instructed by Section 392.22, as soon as possible and no longer than 10 minutes after the stop, the warning devices must be placed as follows:   

Two-lane road:

  • The first device should be placed on the traffic side of the vehicle 10 feet (4 paces) from the front or rear, depending on traffic direction,
  • The second device should be placed 100 feet (40 paces) behind the vehicle, and
  • A third device should be placed 100 feet (40 paces) ahead of the vehicle on the shoulder or in the lane where the vehicle is stopped.

One-way or divided highway:

  • The devices should be placed 10, 100 and 200 feet from the rear of the vehicle, toward approaching traffic.

Hills, Curves, and obstructions:

  • If stopped within 500 feet of a curve, crest of a hill, or other obstruction to view, the warning devices should be placed in the direction of the obstruction to view a distance of 100 feet to 500 feet from the stopped vehicle so as to provide ample warning to other users of the roadway.

Returning to the Highway

After resolving the emergency situation on the shoulder, drivers must take extreme caution in their attempt to re-enter and merge back onto the travel lanes. Examples of an unsafe maneuvers involve merging back into traffic at an unsafe speed (too slow), expecting approaching vehicles to slow down or move over, or merging without a turn signal to alert approaching traffic of the driver’s intention to merge. Pennsylvania’s Vehicle Code, at Section 3324, specifically requires that all vehicles entering a roadway from any place other than the roadway yield to the right-of-way of all other vehicles approaching on the roadway.

Before returning to the highway, retrieve all hazard warning devices and clean up any debris or garbage left behind. Once back in the truck, the driver and any other passenger should fasten their safety belt and check for any obstructions (construction signs, bridge abutments, other vehicles, etc.) on the shoulder ahead which will prevent or block the truck from accelerating to the speed of traffic before merging back into the lanes of travel. Next, the driver should disengage the hazard lights, place the truck in drive, and then engage the left turn signal.

The driver should not merge or re-enter the lanes of travel without first accelerating close to the speed of traffic. Once the truck has reached the relative speed of traffic and there is a safe opening, a return to the highway can be completed. In a perfect world, all licensed drivers would realize just how difficult it is for trucks to merge onto a highway and would slow down or move over to allow such a maneuver, however, unfortunately, this is not reality.