California Allowing Hybrids in Carpool Lanes
California is about to join Virginia as the only states to allow solo drivers in hybrid vehicles to use high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes.
Hybrid car owners are fast approaching the day when they will be allowed to drive solo in California’s car pool lanes. State lawmakers passed a bill last year that gave some types of the high-mileage, low-emission vehicles access to the coveted lanes Ã¢€” a privilege meant to encourage drivers to buy the environmentally friendly cars.
California’s law was supposed to take effect Jan. 1 but first needed approval from the federal government. That permission was tucked into a $286 billion transportation bill Congress passed last week, meaning there is just one last strand of red tape keeping hybrids out of the high-occupancy vehicle lanes: State air regulators need to clarify which vehicles meet the mileage and emissions standards. The policy’s supporters hope hybrids will be allowed in the car pool lanes by year’s end.
California will become the second state to allow hybrids with just one person in the car to use car pool lanes. Virginia enacted the change in 2000, and Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia and Minnesota are considering it.
In Virginia, some drivers complain that opening the door to hybrids has led to a crush of cars and slowed once-speedy commutes.
The American Lung Association of California advocates hybrids but took no stand on the car pool bill for fear it might cut car pooling and lead to more pollution. “We were not convinced that this incentive was needed and we were concerned about the potential to slow traffic in HOV lanes and discourage people from car pooling,” spokeswoman Bonnie Holmes-Gen said.
To prevent hybrids from clogging car pool lanes, Pavley’s bill expires in 2007 and caps at 75,000 the number of hybrid vehicles that could participate. Owners would have to pay about $8 for decals identifying their vehicles as hybrids to police.
The HOV concept simply does not work. People who live within the city in most metro areas with enough traffic conjestion to justify the concept tend to have access to excellent public transportation. On the other hand, carpooling is incredibly impractical for most of those who live in the suburbs. In the D.C. area, for example, people routinely commute in a radius that extends 50 miles or more and work unpredictable hours. Aside from organizing a contrived vanpool, it is virtually impossible for most people who need to drive in to actually find someone they work with who is both on the same schedule and lives in the same general neighborhood. As a result, the HOV lanes are often woefully underused, wasting precious road space.
Allowing hybrids to use these lanes helps solve some of this problem but quite possibly at the cost of public safety. Most of the qualifying vehicles currently available are much smaller than the ones people able to pay the inflated prices hybrids bring would otherwise buy. Smaller cars offer much less protection in a crash. In essence, the government is offering people a temporarily faster commute (as more people get hybrids, the advantages of the HOV lanes diminish) in exchange for a greater risk of death.