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When I’m in traffic jams on the highway, I see cars racing by on the shoulder so they can pass everyone. Please tell me this is illegal. I saw somebody do this the other day and they ended up rear-ending a transport truck that pulled over in front of them. I thought the shoulder was for emergencies only. – Alexandra, Surrey, B.C.

When it comes to the shoulder, drivers should use their heads, police say. Unless you’re behind the wheel of an emergency vehicle, you shouldn’t be driving on the shoulder to get somewhere faster.

“Is it legal? No, and we see this frequently during afternoon and morning rush hour,” says Sgt. Lorne Lecker with RCMP’s Deas Island traffic services in Surrey, B.C. “People try to take short cuts before exits – in some cases, several hundred metres before exits.”

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In B.C., there’s no specific law against driving on the shoulder, but, if you’re using it to beat traffic, police could charge you with several offences, including passing on the right and careless driving, Lecker says.

“The offence is passing other cars while on the shoulder,” Lecker says. “It’s never safe to drive on the shoulder, but there are cases where you can, like if you have a vehicle malfunction and you can only go a slow rate of speed.”

Once you’re going faster than the cars in the actual driving lanes, you can be charged.

If you’re caught passing on the right, it’s a $109 fine and two demerit points. So far this year, the RCMP in B.C. has given out 306 tickets and 46 warnings for it.

The shoulder just isn’t meant for driving. It might be rough or strewn with debris. There might be cyclists or pedestrians on it.

“There are hitchhikers, even though it’s illegal here,” Lecker adds.

Plus, cars from the traffic lanes might suddenly pull over onto the shoulder, and they’re not expecting any cars to be there.

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If there’s a shoulder on the left, you can’t pass cars on it, either. You’ll be charged with unsafe passing on the left.

Shoulder the cost?

The rules vary by province, but none of them allow you to use the shoulder to cut through traffic snarls.

“Traffic is jammed because something is going on,” says Sgt. Kerry Schmidt, with Ontario Provincial Police highway safety division. “If it was okay for one person to use the shoulder, it would be okay for everybody and no one would get anywhere.”

Some provinces have similar rules to B.C. and use passing laws to nab drivers on the shoulder. For instance, in Manitoba, passing on the right is a $174 fine. In Ontario, it’s $110.

“It is supposed to be free of normal traffic for drivers to get out of the travelling [lanes] when required,” Cpl. Julie Courchaine, a spokeswoman for Manitoba RCMP, writes in an e-mail. Other provinces, including Quebec and Newfoundland, have laws specifically against driving on the shoulders. In Quebec, it’s a $100 fine. In Newfoundland, it can range from $100 to $400 for the first offence.

Even just pulling over onto the shoulder can be dangerous. Unless you have an urgent reason to pull over to the side of the road, such as a flat tire or a medical crisis, consider waiting for the next exit instead.

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Does an incoming call or text count as an urgent reason? Probably not.

While it’s not illegal to pull onto the shoulder to make a non-emergency phone call in B.C., like it is in Quebec, it’s still not a great idea, Lecker says.

“It’s safer than doing it while your car’s in motion, but it’s hardly safe,” Lecker says. “I myself have been struck while stopped on the shoulder by an impaired driver – and that was with my flashing lights on.”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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