By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 2009
HOV cheaters have a special, and dark, place in the hearts of area commuters.
As motorists sit in stop-and-go traffic or pick up strangers to meet the minimum number of riders to use the free-flowing HOV lanes, cheaters blithely fly by in the restricted lanes. Alone.
"I run the gantlet and hope I don't get caught," said Thomas Edward James, 44, who commutes to the District from Fairfax County on Interstate 66. He has been ticketed seven times.
"It's a cost-benefit sort of decision that you make every morning," he said. "It's partially laziness. I don't feel like getting off and dealing with all those traffic lights."
Besides, the odds are in his favor.
"Let's be honest: I make it most of the time," he said.
The Washington Post, using court records and databases, tracked down the biggest HOV offenders in Virginia, some with as many as 10 violations, and asked them why they ignored the law even after being caught again and again. The answers ranged from guilt-ridden angst to a sense that a quick ride was well worth a roll of the dice. Others lost their driver's licenses, saw their insurance premiums double and received thousands of dollars in tickets.
But there was a common thread throughout the comments that revealed a sense of the daily misery of the Washington area commute. And that it can make good people behave very badly.
"Sometimes when you commute, you do some crazy, crazy things when you see all those red lights in front of you," said Aleta Joy Williams, 43, a daily cheater who has racked up 10 HOV violations on Interstate 95/395 commuting between Stafford and Fairfax counties. "The commuter mind-set is just totally different. You need to be at a certain place at a certain time, and you are willing to do whatever it takes to get to where you need to."
Cheaters got 22,532 tickets in Northern Virginia in 2007, according to Virginia State Police statistics, and they are the focus of law enforcement attention and the ire of fellow drivers. Violators risk a $1,000 ticket and three points on their driver's licenses.
Walter P. Magnotta, 33, a District real estate lawyer, called his eight HOV violations on I-95/395 "an opportunity cost."
In addition to interstates 95/395 and 66, there are HOV lanes on the Dulles Toll Road. Maryland has HOV lanes on Interstate 270 and Route 50 in Maryland, but the Virginia routes are far more congested.
Although the Maryland State Police do not keep traffic citation statistics, HOV violation rates on I-270 run about 30 percent to 35 percent during the morning rush and 15 percent during the evening rush, said David Buck, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration. On Route 50, the rate is 15 percent.
The Washington area has some of the most successful HOV lanes in the country. The difference between traveling in HOV lanes rather than regular lanes can sometimes be measured in hours on a bad traffic day. It can also mean the difference between making it home for dinner with the family or getting home after the kids are asleep.
Karen Marie Livingston, 49, who commutes between Woodbridge and Capitol Hill, got six tickets during years of cheating, the last one a whopper.
"I decided to stop when I had to tell my husband I got a $1,000 ticket," she said. "I cried for a week. But I couldn't blame anyone but myself. When you get a $1,000 ticket, it's a come-to-Jesus moment."
Now she gets on I-95/395 at 4:45 a.m. to reach work by 6 a.m., before the HOV rules go into effect, and doesn't leave until the afternoon rush restrictions are over. During her cheating days, she would sometimes take hooded coats and arrange them on the seats so it looked as if there were three people in the car. Sometimes that worked.
She also talked her way out of four tickets. "I played one as a dumb female. Another time, I said I was pregnant and sick. The officer understood because his wife was pregnant. One time, I was pulled over but the officer got another call and left," Livingston said.
"I've been lucky," she said. "So now I obey."
Cheaters hurt the system by clogging the lanes and making those who make the extra effort to play by the rules feel like suckers. Thousands of drivers a day pick up slugs, commuters who accept free rides from drivers looking to add passengers to qualify for the HOV lanes.
Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. James DeFord, charged with enforcing HOV rules in Northern Virginia, said he gets angry e-mails when commuters feel enforcement is slipping, and troopers writing HOV tickets often get a thumbs-up or a honk of support from passing motorists.
The cheaters don't get any support from their fellow drivers.
"I used to get a lot of dirty looks," said Katrina R. Thomas, 39, who used to cheat during her tortuous daily commute on I-95/395 between Fredericksburg and Arlington County. "I really didn't care at the time."
Thomas was caught cheating eight times in less than a year. She now lives in Charles County, a move made in part to get out of her monster commute and away from the cheating, the fines and the stress.
"I did feel guilty," she said. She said she didn't pick up slugs because her husband was uncomfortable with her picking up strangers. "I just used the HOV lanes. Yes, I knew it was wrong. But it was like, 'I can't deal with this traffic, and I'm in a rush.' "
In 2006, HOV violators became such a problem that the Virginia General Assembly dramatically increased the fines in Northern Virginia. The first ticket is $125; the second, $250; the third, $500; and a fourth offense within five years will cost you $1,000. And beginning with the second violation, three points are added to your driver's license.
"The law had no teeth," said Joan Morris, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "It was as little as a $50 ticket for a first offense, and none of the tickets came with any points." She said cheating has dramatically fallen since the new fines and points were implemented, but it is still a problem. VDOT said in 2007 that 21 percent to 24 percent of vehicles in the HOV lanes on I-95/395 had fewer than the three required passengers. On I-66 inside the Beltway, the cheating rate is 32 percent.
Ricci Angresano, with six convictions, said the enforcement and penalties made him change his ways. After racking up points on his license from HOV violations, he got hit with a speeding ticket. The judge did not take pity. He revoked Angresano's license for six months. Afterward, it was difficult to find insurance.
"I just don't get on I-66 anymore," said the Fairfax City technology consultant. "I take the long way home and tell my clients not to expect me before 9 a.m.," when the HOV restrictions end.
Asked why he didn't take Metro, he said that he tried it but that it was difficult to get a seat on the commute home. And then there were all the germs. "Everybody's stacked up like sardines, coughing and sneezing and touching the poles," he said. "Then they turn up the heat in winter, and the germs just multiply."
Jonathan Krasnov, 41, who commutes from Edsall Road in Fairfax County to the Washington Design Center in the District, cheated every morning on I-95/395 for 11 years, or about 2,200 trips. He received six tickets in that time. Those are pretty good odds. One could even argue that cheating paid off in terms of gasoline and time saved. He stopped only because he received a $500 ticket after the fines went up.
"You get to the point where you are so desperate you can't take it anymore," Krasnov said. "The highway is just a parking lot. It's beyond hope. It's the state's fault."
A consortium of private companies is proposing converting the two-lane HOV facility on I-95/395 to a three-lane toll road, where drivers would pay a sliding scale of tolls depending on traffic. Tolls would increase to keep the lanes flowing, and the private companies would use technology and increased enforcement to reduce cheating.
Krasnov said he would pay up to $20 a trip if they could guarantee a congestion-free ride.
Fredericksburg resident Gary Gibbs, 52, insists he's a law-abiding citizen, but he has eight HOV violations and recently received a $1,000 ticket.
"When I tell someone I paid $1,000 for driving down the highway, they think it's crazy," he said.
He tries to get on and off the HOV lanes before the rules go into effect at 6 a.m. But sometimes, he says, he can't.
After the big ticket, he started using two alarm clocks.
"My alarm is set for 4:10; the next one at 4:19. I can't go past that. Otherwise I can forget about getting there on time."
Staff researcher Meg Smith and database editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.