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Your Cheating Heart
HOV lanes turn many into criminals
By Walt Seifert
People cheat using carpool lanes. Drivers without passengers use the lanes to save time even though “high occupancy” lanes require at least two and, in some places, three or more occupants.
While dumb saps like me and countless other drivers conscientiously stay out of carpool lanes, lots of scofflaws brazenly cruise in them. On a recent rush-hour trip from Sacramento to Elk Grove on Highway 99, it seemed to me that about half the cars in the HOV lane had just one occupant.
A CBS13 check from a Roseville overpass last year found 43 percent of cars in an Interstate 80 carpool lane during the afternoon commute had no front-seat passenger. Caltrans estimates that 39 percent of carpool-lane users are cheaters. Whatever the number, there’s lots of bad behavior.
Perhaps you’ve heard stories about carpool cheaters using mannequins strapped onto front seats, Chuckie dolls in car seats or just a Giants cap slapped atop a headrest to avoid getting cited. When stopped, pregnant women have claimed an unborn child as a second occupant. Pet owners have done the same with dogs.
Cheaters don’t really need to bother with deception or creative excuses. The odds of getting ticketed are low. Neither North nor South Sacramento CHP offices responded to calls asking how many carpool-lane citations they issued in the county, but the CBS13 report indicated that only 3,773 citations were issued in 2018 for the entire Valley Division, which runs from Tracy to Chico.
Carpool-lane violations occur at rush hour when the CHP is busy with crashes and other urgent tasks, so issuing carpool citations tends to be a low enforcement priority. With each ticket taking 20 to 30 minutes to process, the maximum an officer can write is two or three an hour.
Spotting a violation is not always easy. It can be hard to tell if a small child is in the back seat or if a car has a decal permitting HOV lane use. Pulling someone over in rush-hour traffic may be difficult and dangerous. As a result of lax enforcement, many drivers are willing to risk a $490 fine.
Many HOV lanes in California have been converted to express lanes, sometimes referred to as Lexus lanes. Solo drivers, their cars equipped with FasTrak transponders, can use express lanes for a price. Tolls vary based on how congested the lanes are.
Carpool vehicles and buses may use express lanes without charge. Caltrans is proposing express lanes for I-80 through Yolo County, including on the causeway. Recently adopted regional transportation plans call for conversion of all Sacramento-area HOV lanes to express lanes.
There’s sense in this. Motorists willing (and able) to pay a fee could save time. Their use of express lanes could free up space in the general-purpose lanes while efficiently utilizing any excess capacity in the express lane (which, ironically, is something that illegal carpool-lane use does). Tolls could be used for transportation improvements.
In the Bay Area, toll lanes have been used for years on I-580 and 680, with more coming on line soon. Technology makes cheating risky as license plate readers and cameras record vehicles. Traveling in the toll lane without a transponder can result in a ticket mailed to your home, with a time-stamped photo as evidence.
There are other issues with carpool lanes besides illegal use. Their effectiveness is uncertain. Do they really prompt formation of carpools?
Most carpools are family pools—husband and wife or parent and child. (Observers wonder whether a child should qualify as a carpooler. Driving a kid doesn’t take a car off the road, which is the aim of carpool lanes.)
Another question is whether adding lanes, as is proposed for I-80 in Yolo County, simply induces more traffic.
Do carpool lanes really improve air quality? The California Legislative Analyst’s Office says, “The exact impact of HOV lanes on air quality is unknown.”
For us in Sacramento, toll lanes are a question that can be discussed later. A more immediate problem is cheaters who use existing carpool lanes. That’s a challenge that needs a solution today.
Walt Seifert is executive director of Sacramento Trailnet, an organization devoted to promoting greenways with paved trails. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.