Fines may go up for HOV-lane violators 

As if a $381 ticket isn’t enough, driving solo in the carpool lane is about to get a little more risky: The federal government has ordered California to reduce congestion in carpool lanes across the state, which could bring heftier fines for scofflaws.

Based on a recent study of California carpool lanes from October 2006 to March 2007, the federal government has determined that nearly half of the 1,300 miles of carpool lanes in the state are too crowded. Under federal law, traffic is expected to move at 45 mph in high occupancy vehicle lanes during peak commute hours.

The federal mandate on carpooling congestion stems from recent legislation allowing hybrid vehicles with solo drivers and DMV-issued stickers access to carpool lanes in California. While the Federal Highway Administration has indicated that hybrids may be clogging traffic, Caltrans says the carpool violators are the problem.

Caltrans Director Will Kempton alerted hybrid drivers that their space in the carpool world is secured for now. "I want to assure the public that single-occupant hybrid vehicles will only be used as a last resort in areas," Kempton said in a statement.

The first alternative, it seems, will be to increase the current $381 fine for illegal carpool-lane usage, although details have yet to be released.

Use of Bay Area carpool lanes has been on the rise in the last few years, according to a Metropolitan Transportation Commission report, which oversees the Bay Area. In 2005, the last year for which data is available, the most heavily used carpool lanes — which include Interstates 880, 680 and 80 — were used by an average of 10 percent more vehicles from the year before, the report states.

Most of the congested carpool lanes, also called high-occupancy vehicle lanes, are located in Southern California, said Brigetta Smith, spokeswoman for Caltrans District 4, which oversees the Bay Area.

"Carpool lanes are probably stop and go down there, whereas up here they are probably moving at 20-25 mph," she said, adding that specific details for each region will be available in October.

arocha@examiner.com

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