This article is specific to roads, highways, and Interstates in the unincorporated areas of California (not inside city limits), presuming outside of civilized areas, such as in the desert, mountains, forests, coastlines, etc. Can you sleep on the side of the road in California? The answer is not really that clear.
Can You Sleep On the Side of the Road in California?
The short, the practical answer to this is “no”, you cannot sleep on the side of the road in California. There actually is a law (see below) that makes this illegal on “freeways”. This law spells out several exceptions, however sleeping is not one of them.
There is also the long standing argument that the shoulder of any highway is for emergency use only. Thus if you’re using the shoulder to get some sleep, and a law enforcement officer sees you, he or she will assume you are there for an emergency and will check on you.
It’s Illegal to do so on a Freeway
The State of California addresses this issue within its Vehicle Code, specifically Division 11, Chapter 9, Article 2,  . You can read the full text here.
This law only applies to freeways, however. But, the State’s definition of a freeway can go on to include many highways that people might not otherwise expect. The State defines a freeway as any highway where the property owners on either side of the highway, don’t have their own driveway (or easement) on to that highway. (see official definition here).
Thus, if you are driving along a highway and the residences or businesses along that highway do not have any kind of entrances or exits leading directly to/from their respective properties, then you are on a “freeway”.
But What if You’re Not on a Freeway?
If you are driving along a road or highway that is not considered to be a freeway, then technically it’s legal to park along the side and get some sleep. However, keep in mind the following…
- Your vehicle must be completely clear from on-coming traffic. Even if you believe that your vehicle is completely on the shoulder, you could still be held liable for damages if another vehicle crashes into you, depending on circumstances.
- Make sure when pulling on to the side of the road, that you don’t pull into someone else’s private property.
- In California, the shoulder of a highway is considered to be for emergency use only. Thus, if a law enforcement officer sees you parked on the shoulder, they will assume you are in some kind of emergency and will likely check on you.
You Can Be Held Liable If You Cause an Accident
If your vehicle is parked on the side of a road, highway, or interstate, and another vehicle slams into yours, you could be at fault. This is primarily because in California, the shoulder of a highway is intended for emergency use only. Thus if you were not parked for an emergency, and another vehicle crashes into yours, you could be held liable for damages.
There have already been many court cases on this very issue. In almost all of them, the person sleeping in a vehicle on the side of the road was found liable for damages. Attorney David Azizi actually cites one of these cases in a video found here.
The Bottom Line
You cannot sleep on the side of a road in California, at least not on freeways. On other highways, you are advised to find a wide shoulder, wide enough to allow for several car-widths of clearance to ensure another driver does not hit you. Even if you do find such a place, a law enforcement may still decide to check on you assuming you are parked for an emergency.
Your best bet is to seek out a California Rest Area instead.