As HOV Clock Ticks Down, Drivers Prepare to Pounce

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

They are the "6:01ers," commuters who have found their own trick to beating the Washington area's traffic gridlock.

They lie in wait in strip mall parking lots and park illegally on the side of the road near high-occupancy vehicle ramps, waiting for the clock to strike 6:01 p.m. -- when the carpool lanes on Interstate 95/395 open up to all vehicles, not just those with three or more occupants.

If drivers can hit the lanes as soon as they open to all traffic, their reward is a rocket ride from the Pentagon home -- without the need to pick up carpoolers or slugs -- while other hapless drivers sit in backups. The same phenomenon happens in the morning, just before the lanes open to all traffic at 9 a.m. The waiters can be spotted, often with coffee and cellphone in hand, parked several cars deep on the side of the Franconia-Springfield Parkway near the HOV ramp entrance.

And they can be found near the Pentagon and Columbia Pike in the afternoon, just before 6, when the southbound lanes open.

In the Washington region, which suffers from the second-worst traffic in the nation, it seems all commuters have a strategy to outfox fellow motorists. Some have shortcuts they won't share with even their closest friends; others wake up at the crack of dawn or wait until after rush hour; some are outright cheaters who take their chances driving in restricted lanes and are prepared to pay the price.

"It's that golden time frame where if you get in early enough, you can get a clean shot," said Virginia State Trooper Steven R. Mittendorff. Those first few minutes after the HOV restrictions expire provide as close to an open road as one can get in the area. "After that, you might as well stay in the regular lanes."

Hiram Gonzalez, a 6:01er who was waiting on the side of the highway near the Pentagon recently, said that if he times it just right, he can shave an hour off his commute home to Woodbridge. That can mean the difference between being able to shower and relax a bit before dinner or not.

"It's 25 minutes to Woodbridge this way; it's an hour and 25 minutes in the regular lanes," said Gonzalez, who had been working since 6 a.m.

There are rush-hour HOV lane restrictions on Interstate 270 in Montgomery County, but David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said, "We do not have people lying in wait, possibly because it's only HOV-2." Route 50 in Prince George's County also has HOV-2 rules, but they are always in effect.

Drivers violating the restrictions risk a $90 fine and one point on their license, Sgt. Arthur Betts of the Maryland State Police said.

In Virginia, the 6:01ers lie in wait, because getting onto the HOV lanes too early can get them a $125 ticket, plus court costs. Sometimes, 40 to 50 cars are lined up in the afternoon near the Pentagon and Columbia Pike, drivers watching the minutes tick by, ignoring signs posted to discourage the practice.

The practice also happens on Interstate 66 but to a lesser degree, police said.

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