By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006
The top state police commander in Northern Virginia promised a vigorous crackdown of violators in carpool lanes yesterday, weeks before several law changes take effect that will make it harder for cheaters, as well as hybrid owners, to use the special lanes.
The efforts are primarily directed at high occupancy vehicle lanes on interstates 95 and 395, where a high number of violators and hybrid owners has contributed to increasing traffic congestion.
State Police Capt. G. Michael Counts said new money from the state and fines on drivers would make it possible to put more officers on the street as the department launches its latest effort to rid the lanes of violators and free it for law-abiding commuters.
Counts said officers gave tickets to about 23,000 violators last year, an increase of more than 50 percent from 15,000 in 2004. At the same time, state transportation officials said, there has been a 23 percent decrease in the number of violators since 2003.
But Counts added that the department's efforts often had the unwanted effect of causing major highway backups, as police vehicles would take up part of the highway and drivers would slow to see what was going on. Counts said police will change their tactics to reduce such backups. Instead of putting dozens of officers on strictly defined missions, a smaller number of troopers would be used, and once sizable tie-ups form, troopers would stop pulling vehicles over.
"We're going to have as many enforcement projects as we can," Counts said. "But we'll try to structure them in a way that has the least amount of impact on lawful commuters."
The announcement came at an afternoon news conference, at which Virginia transportation officials also reminded motorists that several changes regarding the use of hybrids in carpool lanes will take effect July 1.
Hybrid drivers are exempt from carpool rules in Virginia and are permitted to use the lanes without passengers under a policy aimed at encouraging the use of cleaner cars. The policy has worked, and hybrids have sold by the thousands in recent years because of the exemption and high gas prices. But the status of hybrid owners has incited a backlash from carpoolers and state transportation officials who believe hybrids are jamming the lanes and slowing commutes.
Dennis Morrison, Northern Virginia administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation, said yesterday that the agency's most recent figures show that during peak times, more than 1,800 cars are using each lane on I-95, which is more than they were designed to handle. Hybrids accounted for nearly 25 percent of those vehicles, according to a state study conducted last fall, up from 4 percent in 2003.
Hybrids are "contributing to the eroding performance on I-95 and I-395," said Ralph Davis, deputy secretary of transportation.
Davis and other state officials are hoping a new law limiting the number of hybrid owners eligible for the perk will reduce the number of vehicles on the crowded highway.
Drivers who buy hybrids after July 1 will not be exempt from carpool lane rules on I-95 and I-395 and will have to follow the same rules as other drivers. State officials reminded drivers yesterday that new cars must be fully registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles by June 30 to qualify for the exemption.
Hybrid drivers will be able to use the carpool lanes on I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road, which are not as crowded, no matter when they buy their cars.
Hybrids bought after July 1 will receive a different license plate so police can tell which cars are exempt. The existing plates are white, with a yellow and green emblem on the left side and "clean special fuel" written in green at the bottom. The new plates are blue, with a blue and green emblem on the right side and "clean special fuel" written in blue at the bottom.
The cost for getting the plates will increase from $10 to $25 to pay for the new design and enforcement.
Also after July 1, fines for first-time violators will increase from $50 to $125. Second offenders will pay $250 instead of $200 and receive three points on their licenses.