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Dangers of Road Shoulder Drop-off

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Dangers of Road Shoulder Drop-off


A shoulder or pavement edge drop-off refers to a defect of road geometry where the elevation change (vertical distance) between the travel lane and its adjacent shoulder, or between two travel lanes, exceeds acceptable limits.

These types of edge drop-offs are often created due to inadequate or incomplete highway construction or reconstruction.

When the shoulder or pavement edge drop-off is significant, it creates a dangerous condition for drivers, particularly smaller vehicles such as compact cars and motorcycles as well as a trailer-pulling vehicle. It is easy for smaller vehicles to lose control while transitioning between the road and its shoulder.

A motorist who encounters a drop-off is likely to become startled or distracted because they may not be expecting this condition while making a routine lane change. Because of the drop-off, the driver may move out of the travel lane. And when they make an attempt to return to the lane quickly, the vehicle’s tires will experience resistance (known as “scrubbing”).

Many motorists react instinctively to this resistance by steering aggressively and end up overcompensating for the scrubbing.

That happens because the steering angle needed to come back to the lane and overcome the elevation change is larger than what is usually required while making the same maneuver on an aligned pavement.

This situation could lead to the vehicle losing control, resulting in a collision with the oncoming traffic either from behind or from the front (or even the side). For these reasons, road shoulder and pavement drop-offs have been the cause of numerous crashes and personal injury litigation. 

Pavement Drop-Off

In highway reconstruction, the contractors typically make use of conventional techniques which can create almost vertical pavement edges in-between the finished surfaces and the unfinished surface work in the adjacent lanes.

The degree of the drop-off is approximately equivalent to the asphalt thickness on the completed lane. But the paved top layer of asphalt may have irregularities, which can result in a higher elevation of the drop-off. This exposes drivers to a risk of accidents and serious injuries when they are either trying to drive off or on the road.

Shoulder Edge Drop-off

When resurfacing of the road is done without sufficiently raising the shoulder height, it can result in a dangerous shoulder edge drop-off.

This condition may also occur when the resurfacing of the road and shoulder is done, but the ground surface abutting the roadside has not been raised to the shoulder height.

This will result in a drop-off and will also leave the shoulder without any lateral support. This may cause the edge to crack, and shoulder failure may occur.

In some cases, the road may have an unpaved shoulder (stone, grass, earth, etc.) Here the drop-off could typically occur in areas where the car or motorcycle tends to veer off the paved surface.

These areas may be near a roadside mailbox, adjacent to a horizontal curve, or a turnaround. When the shoulder is unpaved, a drop-off may occur because it’s not maintained like the actual road surface.

For example, when construction crews lay more asphalt on the road and not the shoulder, the road could naturally be higher than the shoulder.

How Should a Driver Deal with a Drop-off?

Driver’s training manuals and education courses usually include instructions and guidelines on how to deal with road hazards, including driving off or on a road shoulder or pavement drop-off. Please follow these steps when encountering a drop-off, so you don’t make a mistake when leaving or driving onto the shoulder:

  • When attempting to drive on the shoulder, do not slam on the brakes because you don’t want to cause a rear-end collision if there is someone behind you. Slowly let up on the gas to drive off the road and put your right turn signal on.
  • Keep the steering wheel within your grip firmly because a sudden drop-off could result in a jerk – you don’t want to oversteer either way. However, curb your instinct to turn the wheel back toward the road.
  • Continue to steer your car or motorcycle in a straight line, while straddling the edge of the pavement while gradually driving off the road. This can help your tires from not being scrubbed.
  • Now – when attempting to return to the road be alert to the oncoming traffic. When you find the road is clear, you may try to return to the pavement or the road while maintaining a slow speed, but you will have to speed up when you are back on the road.
  • Turn the steering wheel marginally toward the pavement while attempting to return from the shoulder to the pavement and put your left signal light on.

Watch YouTube Video: Shoulder Drop-off. The video shows a shoulder drop-off in a construction zone.

Highway Reconstruction – Unsafe Practices can Result in Lawsuits

When a pavement or shoulder edge drop-off is a crucial contributing factor in a car accident, a tort liability lawsuit may be brought against the construction contractor and the local or state agencies involved.

Construction zones where highway resurfacing projects are underway often pose a high risk of edge drop-off accidents for vehicle drivers.

A dangerous edge drop-off occurs when the responsible parties, including the state agencies and the contractor, have failed to ensure a safe transition to the shoulder. This condition becomes more hazardous at night because drivers may not be able to notice the drop-off when it’s dark.

It is essential to point out that the time deadline to file a personal injury claim against a governmental agency is drastically reduced as compared to other personal injury claims filed against a non-governmental agency. For claims against a public agency, you have only six months (or 180 days) from the date of the accident to file your claim. Other important deadlines must also be met. It is imperative to contact an experienced personal injury lawyer to protect your right to recover compensation for the injuries you have suffered.

Example of Road Drop-Off Accident

In an accident involving an edge drop-off, a victim suffered severe injuries after the right front tire of her vehicle dropped off an asphalt edge that was four inches high. The defendant had left this condition unchecked while they resurfaced the highway.

The victim was unable to control the wheel and swerved into the oncoming traffic lane. That lane was one inch lower in height compared to the lane where she was driving, and it was still under construction.

As the victim made an attempt to return the automobile to her original lane, it caused her to lose control of the vehicle. The vehicle overturned twice, resulting in severe injuries that eventually rendered her quadriplegic.

In another case involving an edge drop-off accident, the motorist approached a pavement drop-off which was three inches high. However, no construction work was in progress in the vicinity, and no workers or equipment could be seen. There was no signage or edge lines either to mark the drop-off location.

When the victim’s vehicle hit the drop-off, it wobbled and left the road, and ended up flipping over multiple times. The accident resulted in catastrophic injuries to the victim’s whole body, and he also suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Accidents that occur due to pavement or shoulder edge drop-offs have a much higher chance of being fatal. Some other causes of edge drop-offs include excessive wear, erosion, and cracks in the pavement edge. The shoulder material could migrate from the edge because of these reasons.

Identifying the Edge Drop-off Defect to Establish Claim

To determine that an unsafe highway shoulder or a defective pavement edge drop-off led to the driver’s accident and injuries, it’s paramount for victims to have an experienced Sacramento defective roadway attorney on their side.

The attorney will be able to assess and evaluate the defect thoroughly to build a solid case. They will collect material evidence, which shows that the road construction, maintenance, or design defect was present before the accident occurred, and the location and nature of the crash was a result of that defect.

Some of the vital steps that a knowledgeable Sacramento road shoulder drop-off attorney will take include:

  • A detailed investigation of the accident site with the help of qualified experts.
  • Determining the height and shape of the drop-off and how it deviates from the federal and state guidelines.
  • Taking photographs and notes to document the precise characteristics of the defective roadway, including all aspects from the viewpoint of a driver (such as skid marks, speed limits, edge/pavement markings, and signage).
  • Collecting copies of police report and maintenance and photographic records from the department of transportation.

All the parties involved in highway construction should recognize that the objective behind a highway shoulder is to protect the drivers and ensure that it serves as a safety device.

Parties that build, maintain, and own the roadways in California are responsible for ensuring that the road is safe for the traveling public and performs as intended.

Safety Edge: A More Reliable Paving Alternative

As the transportation departments across the nation recognize the need to protect drivers from roadway defects, they are increasingly promoting an innovative asphalt paving technique known as the “Safety Edge.”

According to new research, motorists can recover in almost all the cases if the edge is designed to taper 30 degrees from the horizontal which means there should not be a sharp drop off from the road to the shoulder. The surface from the road to the shoulder should be a gradual decline, not 90 degrees, which is straight down. A nice short slope, not a small cliff. 

It is known as the Safety Edge, which is more durable and can be included easily in the paving process to provide for a safer road edge. It also creates a more resilient interface between the material used and the pavement. In road resurfacing projects, this asphalt edge can be included at a minimal additional cost.

Edge drop-offs can be minimized or altogether avoided in several ways. The solutions are often quite affordable and straightforward. Safety Edge is one such proven and effective solution.

Watch YouTube Video: In the Field Reports – “Safety Edge.” This video demonstrates how a “safety edge” can add a safety feature to the edge of a road.

Responsibility of the State and Municipal Agencies

The state and municipal agencies in California may neglect the upkeep, repair, and maintenance of road shoulders more often than most people would like to think. Shoulders are designed to be safe areas for motorists to pull over for any reason or wait for assistance.

But when these spots are poorly constructed, worn down, littered, or are in a state of disrepair, they can quickly turn into a road hazard.

Drivers cannot be expected to anticipate a shoulder drop-off when they are driving at speed on a highway. Shoulder edge drop-offs can result in various types of accidents, including deadly rollovers.

It is the responsibility of the local agencies and the contractors to maintain safety at these sites. There is no reason for road shoulder drop-off accidents to occur if the responsible parties carry out their duties proactively to protect people on the road.

Have a Knowledgeable Road Defect Lawyer by Your Side

A competent Sacramento shoulder and pavement drop-off accident lawyer should be consulted when an accident of this nature occurs.

The lawyer should have a thorough understanding of this road hazard and recognize the potential liability of multiple parties in a roadway defect case. These defects can often be subtle, and only an expert attorney would be in a position to identify and establish them during the crucial post-crash investigation phase.

The conditions at the crash site can sometimes change in a matter of days or weeks after the accident, which could result in loss of critical evidence.

Therefore, the attorney and their investigative experts must move fast in identifying the shoulder drop-off defects and preserving vital evidence for building a strong case of compensation for the injured parties. Remember, there is a strict filing deadline in claims against government entities. In most cases, a claim must be filed within six months or 180 days from the date that the accident took place. Contact an attorney right away to help you file a timely claim.  

Sacramento Personal Injury Lawyer 

I’m Ed Smith, a personal injury attorney in Sacramento, and the founder of AutoAccident.com. If you or a family member has been seriously hurt in an accident caused by a road defect, call us now at 916.921.6400 or 800.404.5400 for free, friendly advice.

I have been providing legal representation to those injured in auto accidents since 1982 with an aim to help them obtain the maximum possible compensation for their injuries.

We are members of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and the National Association of Distinguished Counsel.

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Editor’s Note: This page has been updated for accuracy and relevancy [cha 2.1.21]

Photo by Jesse Collins on Unsplash

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