Do I Have to Change Lanes When a Vehicle is on the Shoulder?

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Traveling the country can bring you enriching experiences. Many frequently drive not just for work but also to explore America from coast to coast.

However, even if you don’t drive much, you should know what to do in emergencies, such as when a vehicle is on the shoulder. In this instance, you should obey the “move over” laws. But, it’s not always as simple as just doing what the law tells you. These laws can vary from state to state.

Let’s take a closer look at move over laws so you can make the right call the next time you see a vehicle on the shoulder.

Close up of a reflection of a man wearing sunglasses in the rear view mirror while he drives down a highway.

What Is a Move Over Law?

A move over law requires the driver of a vehicle to change lanes to provide safe clearance for emergency personnel on the side of the road. This includes law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical responders, and utility workers. In some cases, it also includes tow-truck drivers and disabled vehicles.

Some may not think these kinds of laws are necessary. Is it really that unsafe to pass a vehicle that’s stopped on the shoulder? However, looks can deceive. One of the most dangerous things police officers do, in fact, is stop on the side of highways. In 2013, traffic-related incidents like this killed 46 officers.

Why Do Move Over Laws Exist?

Move over laws exist to protect personnel working alongside a roadway. These types of laws emerged from incidents in which personnel suffered injuries while performing emergency services.

In fact, the first move over law originated in South Carolina in 1996, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). A paramedic responding to a crash got hit by a car and unfortunately died. In response, South Carolina enacted its move over law, and other states soon followed suit. 

Which States Have Move Over Laws?

All 50 states have some form of move over law, though they vary in wording and requirements from state to state. The only U.S. jurisdiction without a move over law is Washington, D.C. Despite the prevalence of these laws, 71% of Americans have no idea they even exist.

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Do I Have to Change Lanes for ALL Vehicles on the Shoulder?

The basics of most move over laws are similar, but as we mentioned, the laws vary. The law requires drivers to change lanes to provide a one-lane buffer for stopped emergency vehicles in most jurisdictions. When there isn’t another lane or a driver can’t safely change lanes, the driver must slow down to a reasonably safe speed well below the posted speed limit.

Will I Get a Ticket If I Don’t Change Lanes When a Vehicle Is on the Shoulder? 

Yes, law enforcement can ticket you if you don’t change lanes when a vehicle is on the shoulder, provided that is how the move over law reads in the particular state you’re driving in. Some states are vaguer in their wording of move over laws, stating simply that the driver must yield the right of way to approaching emergency vehicles or drive with due care when passing a stopped emergency vehicle. It’s best practice to move over whenever possible in an emergency, even if the law in the state in which you’re driving doesn’t specifically require it.

How Much Are Ticket Fines for Not Moving Over?

Each state determines its own penalty for violating move over laws. However, most impose a fine. Fines can be as high as $500, according to the NHTSA. Some states may also include jail time as a possible penalty for violating a move over law.

Man pulled over in a convertible by an officer.

What If I Can’t Move Over One Lane?

If you can’t move over one lane or it’s unsafe to do so, slow down to a reasonably safe speed well below the posted speed limit. This includes weighing such factors as weather conditions, road conditions, and vehicular or pedestrian traffic in the area.

If you drive often enough, you’re sure to come across an emergency eventually. Even infrequent travelers have likely seen emergency vehicles on the shoulder of the road from time to time. Whether it’s a police officer stopping someone for a traffic violation, an ambulance at a collision, or a tow-truck driver trying to help out a stranded motorist, it’s our responsibility to know the move over laws and abide by them.

Even more important than abiding by the law is doing the right thing. Move over laws try to impart this by requiring us to move over a lane or slow down to provide a safer environment for emergency personnel or even an average citizen helping someone in distress. It’s also an important safety factor that applies to you, so you don’t inadvertently become part of an emergency.

Have you ever seen an emergency on the side of the road? Before reading this article, did you realize you had to move over?

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  1. Moving over when ANY vehicle is parked on the shoulder is just common sense and common courtesy for the person dealing with a difficult mechanical issue. I’ve been there trying to change a tire with the cars, particularly trucks and large RV’s setting up a pressure wave that hits you. It’s intimidating. Even worst when it’s raining.

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