Passing on the shoulder is not only unlawful, it can be dangerous


June 06, 1994

Attention, driver of that maroon sedan going north on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park at 9 a.m. last Tuesday:

You are an idiot.

We know this because Intrepid Commuter was headed north as well when you passed us. Being passed normally wouldn't infuriate us, even if you were speeding. We are accustomed to reckless drivers and understand the risk they pose.

But you passed us on the shoulder. The shoulder!

That's not a passing lane, you exhaust-breathing, oil-swigging, road-hogging, self-centered, mush-for-brains.

We were reminded of this annoying encounter by a call from Ed Kuhl, a retired dean of students at Harford Community College. Mr. Kuhl has witnessed similar episodes of shoulder driving, and he's a bit alarmed by it (although he shows far greater restraint than Our Intrepidness in the name-calling department.)

"Motorists are beginning to use the paved shoulders on state highways as a drive lane, putting bicyclists and pedestrians at risk and creating lanes where they don't exist," Mr. Kuhl says. "It's one of these problems nobody seems to attend to unless something bad happens."

It isn't always as egregious an infraction as we experienced in Anne Arundel County. Mr. Kuhl sees drivers moving onto the shoulder of two-lane highways to get around cars that are stopped, waiting to turn left. He also sees drivers entering the shoulder far in advance of making a right turn.

Although less serious, these are still violations. And it frustrates Mr. Kuhl that drivers seem downright oblivious to the law.

"I think people really believe it's a lane," he says. "I don't think it's a matter of being malicious."

Officials at the State Highway Administration have mixed reactions to the issue. Some say they believe shoulder driving is on the increase. Others are skeptical.

"I haven't seen it," says Tom Hicks, the SHA's director of traffic and safety. "It's so rare, I'd be shocked to see it."

But Darrell A. Wiles, the SHA's assistant engineer for traffic in Baltimore and Harford counties, is not so surprised. He suspects many more drivers are passing on the shoulder than in the past.

"I used to think that was rare," Mr. Wiles says. "I don't anymore."

Both officials agree that shoulder driving is dangerous, but the risk depends on the circumstances. For instance, getting around a left-turner or driving down a shoulder to get to a right turn when traffic is gridlocked, is relatively low-risk.

"If done with care at reasonable speeds, it can be done safely," Mr. Wiles says.

In fact, SHA sometimes facilitates both movements. They extend right-turn lanes or sometimes create short passing lanes on paved shoulders at popular left-turn points on two-lane roads.

But deliberately passing cars by driving on the shoulder for an extended period is not safe, they say.

"The biggest threat is that the guy being passed might pull over to the right at that moment or someone might pop out of a driveway unexpectedly," Mr. Hicks says. "The longer someone's in the shoulder, the greater the danger."

Crash victims get floral remembrance

Pay heed to flowers along the highway.

Recent callers have asked us about the floral arrangements that can sometimes be found along busy roads. From a single flower to elaborate arrangements, they are often left leaning against a guardrail or a light pole.

They've been spotted along Interstate 95 south of the city line, in Carroll County along Route 140 or on Route 482. Baltimore County's Dulaney Valley Road has one, too. As does Pulaski Highway in White Marsh.

They memorialize the victims of traffic accidents. Often, they are left by friends or family members on the anniversary of an accident victim's death.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving has endorsed the trend. State Highway Administration officials say they have nothing against it -- assuming the floral memorials don't distract drivers.

"As long as they're not creating a problem, they're fine," says Chuck Brown, an SHA spokesman. "In fact, it reminds some people that there was an accident there, and they should stay alert."

Donna Becker of MADD's northern Maryland chapter agrees. While flowers, a cross, or some other marker "might be distracting for a second, they give you an awareness of what's happened there."

We are always touched when we see these arrangements. They are sobering reminders of the dangers of driving. Last year, 672 people died in traffic accidents in Maryland.

Mr. Brown suggests that memorials be left on the ground, rather than standing where they might distract drivers. Or you can plant flowers by adopting a section of highway. To learn more about that program, call Mr. Brown at 1 (800) 323-6742.

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