What does “shoulder” mean in driving?

I just got my permit and I went on my first practice drive today! I saw a road sign I didn’t understand, though, that said “Soft Shoulder”—what does “shoulder” mean in driving?

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Answer provided by
Shannon Fitzgerald
Answered on Feb 03, 2022
Congratulations on getting your permit! Getting to know your road signs is a great practice for any new driver—here’s a breakdown on what the shoulder means in driving.
Essentially, a road sign referring to a “shoulder” is talking about the part of the road that falls outside the outer lane. This area is also known as the breakdown lane and is designed for use in emergency situations—like when a car needs to pull over to change a flat tire.
A “Soft Shoulder” sign is warning that the gravel is unpaved in the breakdown lane. Some other common road signs referencing the shoulder of the road include:
  • Low Shoulder—there is at least 3 inches of elevation difference between the road and the shoulder
  • Shoulder Drop Off—there is a sharp drop-off in elevation between the road and the shoulder
  • Right Shoulder Closed—the right shoulder is inaccessible up ahead
  • Shoulder Narrows—the shoulder loses width and may be inaccessible up ahead
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