Irate drivers who call the Department of Transportation's HERO hotline to report HOV-lane violators let off steam as well as help alert the State Patrol to scofflaw "hot spots."

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They called him the “Mad Dog,” after the vanity plates on his red Mustang, and he was among the state’s most notorious HOV-lane offenders.

Fellow drivers reported him more than 40 times for violating the high-occupancy-lane law on Interstate 405 near Totem Lake. The complaints prompted the state Department of Transportation and State Patrol to mail him brochures and warning letters explaining the law, with little effect.

Finally, Cathy Tao-Alexanderson, manager of the state’s HERO hotline, had enough and called the State Patrol.

“I told them, ‘You have got to get this guy. He’s irritating us.’ “

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Thanks to the frequent complaints, troopers had a fairly good idea when and where Mad Dog would be driving his Mustang, and they set up a trap. Sure enough, he was caught and issued a $124 ticket.

Tao-Alexanderson remembers the phone call she received a short time later. “Mad Dog is down,” the trooper told her.

To Tao-Alexanderson, Mad Dog and others like him best illustrate the point behind the Department of Transportation’s HERO hotline, which allows motorists to drop a dime on scofflaws who violate HOV- and HOT-lane laws as well as those who cut in ferry lines.

No one is ticketed based solely on the complaints, but the reports alert the State Patrol to violator “hot spots” and offer the law-abiding an alternative to gnashing their teeth, or even committing road-rage violence.

“Instead of taking it out on other drivers, they scream and rant at us and it makes them feel better,” Tao-Alexanderson said.

The hotline — 877-764-HERO — was launched in 1984 when HOV lanes were introduced in Western Washington.

The program was intended to encourage people to report violations and police each other as well as to educate the public, which at that time was not accustomed to the dedicated lanes. It also was intended to reduce road rage, said Jamie Holter, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation.

She said transportation experts recognize that it’s extremely aggravating to law-abiding drivers stuck in traffic to see a blatant offender blow by in the high-occupancy-vehicle or toll lane.

Calls feed database

According to the Transportation Department, more than 39,000 license plates were reported to the HERO program by phone or email last year.

Tao-Alexanderson said that although the number of reports has gone down slightly in the past year — perhaps because of the law banning cellphone use while driving — there are still more than 100 email and phone reports to the HERO hotline on any given workday.

The information is entered by hand into a violator database by Tao-Alexanderson or another employee, who each work part time in a corner cubicle in the department’s Shoreline offices.

Part of the job is weeding out false or malicious reports.

“After listening to a lot of these, you get a sense” about which ones are personal vendettas and not based on an actual violation, she said. “Maybe the information doesn’t line up right, as far as time, date and locations, or you get too many on one plate from the same person.”

The Transportation Department sends a brochure to alleged violators after a first violation report and a letter after a second one.

The third time, offenders receive a form letter from the State Patrol.

In the old days, when the economy was more robust, a state trooper sometimes would pay a visit to the homes of habitual offenders, Holter said.

But while the State Patrol typically doesn’t put a high priority on nabbing HOV offenders because they’re not typically “collision causers,” it does occasionally conduct emphasis patrols at “hot spots,” spokesman Bob Calkins said.

Plenty to pull over

Despite the drop in calls to the HERO hotline, there’s no shortage of HOV-lane violators.

On a workday last week, State Patrol Trooper Richard Bjorkman headed onto Interstate 405 shortly after 7 a.m. to look for offenders. He drove a marked patrol car because HOV-lane violators often reveal themselves by veering out of the lane when they spot a police vehicle, he said.

With tinted windows and child car seats in the back, it’s not always easy to tell who’s driving in an HOV lane legitimately, he said.

So, the best way to catch offenders is to look for those who “dive out of the lane when they see me,” he said.

Bjorkman pulled over eight vehicles in less than two hours. Two were using the lanes legitimately: One had children in the car, and a second turned out to have two adults.

But the remaining six drivers were ticketed.

Several of those cited said they knew it was illegal to use the lane and that they knew they could be caught or reported by fellow drivers.

But, they said, they were running late for work and thought they’d take the chance.

“I forgot my wallet and was late. I didn’t think I’d get caught,” said one 19-year-old who asked not to be named. “My parents will be mad.”

Another driver in a green Honda Accord saw the trooper’s vehicle from about three car-lengths back.

Bjorkman watched in the rearview mirror while the driver abruptly jerked into the regular left-hand travel lane and then into the middle lane, where he came to a virtual stop to avoid catching up to the trooper’s car.

“He doesn’t want to pass me,” Bjorkman said.

Meanwhile, other drivers pointed out the Honda.

Bjorkman eventually pulled the car over.

“He asked if I would give him a warning,” Bjorkman said. “He said he’s never done it before.”

Bjorkman said he doesn’t give many warnings when it comes to traffic violations.

“Whatever they did,” he said, “they did it right in front of me.”

Calkins, the State Patrol spokesman, said violators come in more than one flavor.

Some, once they’ve been reported or sent a brochure, are contrite, he said.

Some who receive a brochure or letter are upset and act like they’ve been “accused of some heinous crime,” he said.

Tao-Alexanderson said she’s seen people come out to the Department of Transportation’s Shoreline office “to clear their name.”

But there are others who just don’t care.

“They just figure the price of the ticket is worth the savings in time,” Calkins said.

Like Mad Dog, perhaps.

Despite his citation for driving alone in an HOV lane, he recently was reported again to the HERO hotline for another violation on I-405 near Totem Lake, Tao-Alexanderson said.

A reporter’s call to the 56-year-old driver from Snohomish was not returned.

“What are you going to do?” Tao-Alexanderson asked. “He doesn’t care.”

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983

or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.