It sure seems like there are a lot of cheaters in HOV lanes, slowing down those lanes for carpoolers and enraging solo drivers who follow the rules. How common are HOV violations and how does the State Patrol enforce them?
You’re sitting there. It’s bumper to bumper. Barely moving. Miserable.
Glance out the window. One lane over is an open lane of free-flowing traffic. An asphalt Xanadu.
But it’s HOV. And you’re all alone. And you’re a good citizen. So you sit.
But it sure looks like some of your fellow drivers are a lot less civically conscious — an awful lot of those HOV-lane cars don’t have the minimum passenger requirements. So you stew.
“Whenever I’m on the highway, there are a lot of cars using the HOV lane and it seems impossible they all have that many passengers,” wrote Michael Jacobson, of Ravenna. “How do State Patrol troopers monitor and enforce Highway 520’s HOV lane requirement?”
Jim S., of Seattle, wrote that on the Eastside, where 520’s HOV lanes require a three-person carpool, he thinks there are three times as many “buttheads zooming by one-to-a-car” as there are legitimate carpoolers. “Why don’t they enforce this anymore?” Jim asked. “What gives?”
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First of all, they do enforce it.
But with hundreds of miles of HOV lane in King County and about 130 state troopers total in the county (not all of whom are on duty all the time), there’s simply not enough manpower to monitor everywhere all the time.
And, unfortunately, the times when people are most tempted to cheat on HOV lanes are also the times when troopers are most likely to be occupied with more urgent concerns.
“When traffic’s heavy, typically it’s a time when most of the troopers that are on shift are at collisions due to the heavy volume of rush hour,” said Trooper Rick Johnson, a State Patrol spokesman.
The State Patrol pulled over more than 14,000 cars for HOV-lane violations in 2016, handing out about 10,000 tickets ($136 a pop) and 4,000 warnings, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
There’s no high-tech system for catching violators. Troopers either park in the shoulder or median or drive alongside HOV lanes and look in car windows.
Johnson admitted that enforcing three-person HOV lanes is a bit more difficult than enforcing two-person ones, especially with the seeming proliferation of over-tinted windows.
But, he said, if a trooper can’t see into a car to count passengers, that’s often reason enough to pull them over for violating state laws on window tinting. Troopers gave out 1,200 citations last year for violating rules on vehicle equipment, a category that includes window tinting.
“There’s plenty of times I’ve stopped a vehicle because I couldn’t see somebody,” Johnson said. If it turns out that the car did have the proper number of people and its windows were not in violation, “you just send them on their way; people usually understand.”
Other times, Johnson said, guilty drivers will inadvertently make themselves known.
“If cars don’t have the proper number of people, a lot of times they’ll see us and dive over into the general purpose lane,” he said.
Drivers are not above more elaborate ways of cheating either. From department store mannequins, to the Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world,” to a frighteningly inanimate Seahawks fan, stories are legion of troopers pulling over drivers with dummy passengers, designed to fool observers.
So how many people are actually cheating? Is the “butthead”-to-carpooler ratio really 3-to-1 as Jim posited?
WSDOT doesn’t have road-specific data on violators, so there’s no way to know the percentage of cheaters on the 3-mile stretch of 520 — between Interstate 405 and the Lake Washington bridge — where the HOV lanes are three-person.
On all its HOV lanes (and express toll lanes), which include sections of Interstates 5, 405 and 90; highways 520 and 167, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, WSDOT claims average violation rates of between 1 and 7 percent.
The national average of HOV violators is between 10 and 15 percent, WSDOT says.
WSDOT’s stats, like State Patrol’s enforcement, rely on human observation, not high-tech gadgetry. The agency is in the middle of a project to hand-count violations at four different spots along I-5. During peak hours, they’ll have observers at overpasses counting passing vehicle in all lanes and how many passengers are in each, said Matt Neeley, a WSDOT traffic and planning engineer.
They plan to release a report in the fall, the first update on HOV violation rates since 2012, Neeley said.
WSDOT credits its HERO program with keeping its reported violation rates below the national average. That program lets drivers report carpool cheaters (and their license plate numbers) online or by calling a toll-free number, 877-764-HERO.
The State Patrol uses data from the HERO program to help station troopers in areas with lots of violations. Less than 5 percent of people who are reported through the program are reported a second time, WSDOT says.
But cheaters won’t get a ticket if you report them. First-time violators get a brochure in the mail, followed by progressively sterner letters for subsequent violations.
Despite State Patrol’s and WSDOT’s efforts, some people are, to use Jim’s term, simply “buttheads.”
“I am an old geezer and will happily pay the ticket,” an anonymous Reddit user wrote last year, fessing up to frequently cheating on 520’s HOV lanes. “I’ve been doing it for several years now and have yet to be pulled over, so it’s a fairly cheap tax in my eyes. Sorry not sorry, but you guys keep calling in the HERO line.”