Hybrids in the Carpool Lane?

One of the perks enjoyed by hybrid drivers in California is about to come to an end. No, it’s not the reduced fuel costs, the car insurance rates, or the “cool” persona that comes with driving a hybrid in Hollywood. It’s about traffic. Lots of it.

California has long had HOV lanes, better known to you and me as carpool lanes. “High occupancy vehicle” lanes were designed to reward people who carpooled, thus using less gas, by giving them a slightly less traffic-filled ride to work or wherever they were going. How much gas they actually saved is an ongoing debate, but one thing the California legislature did agree on is that hybrids, which inherently save gas, deserved a little break, especially since carpooling in California hasn’t really been popular since…since…well, ever, really.

Hence, hybrid owners could apply a little sticker on their bumpers that allowed them to use the HOV lanes, even if they were alone. This managed to make hybrid drivers pretty happy, while infuriating pretty much every other driver in California. But now that’s all over.

So why are drivers of hybrids no longer allowed to use HOV lanes? A few reasons. The first, and most important, is that, believe it or not, California’s pollution standards, already some of the toughest in the nation, are about to get even stricter, so not even all hybrids are going to qualify for the benefit. In fact, the new standards are so tough that the state government believes only 40,000 vehicles will qualify for the program, compared to the current program’s 85,000.

The second reason involves claims that hybrids drive too slowly on the highway. This we give a little less credence, if for no other reason that we’re not sure what “too slow” means on California’s infamous (and not in a good way) highway system.

California isn’t unique in this program: Virginia, Utah, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Florida and Arizona all have programs that allow gas-sipping cars to use the carpooling lane, even if there’s only the driver in the car. These states took advantage of a federal provision signed into law in 2005 allowing solo hybrid drivers in HOV lanes if the state so desired. All the government said is that the states could allow hybrids in the HOV lane if they wanted: any other stipulations were entirely up to the states.

Generally these programs involve the car owner applying (and sometimes paying) for a special sticker. But even that’s not without controversy: Arizona’s law, for example, has been halted, because the state wants to evaluate the actual impact the program has had. It’s unclear what this does other than offer another incentive for some people to purchase a hybrid. Some have accused these programs of being nothing more than a way for the states in question to take hybrid owners for a little more money.

At the heart of the issue is what the HOV program was intended to do. After all, HOV lanes are designed to reduce fuel consumption, and driving a hybrid does precisely that. But if the idea was that we use as little fuel as possible to transport each person; an empty car driving is, essentially, wasted energy.

So hybrids in the carpool lane: yea or nay? There’s no easy answer to this question. Maybe you should just play it safe and carpool in your hybrid. That way, you can use the HOV lane no matter what. Just be sure to lay down the rules about the radio before you start driving; otherwise, even the HOV lane won’t seem fast enough if somebody insists on playing the worst of the ’70s.

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