On a recent Friday afternoon, my wife and I were driving south from the Beltway on Interstate 95 in a long stream of slow traffic. The traffic was understandable: Everyone wanted to be somewhere else for the weekend. What was not understandable were the nearly empty high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes running parallel to the four clogged lanes.

The lighted sign at the entrance to the open lanes said HOV-3. It soon became apparent, however, that about the only motorists in the HOV lanes were HOV-2 cheaters and single drivers plus the occasional tractor-trailer. Without the HOV restriction, traffic might have been running freely on six lanes instead of crawling along on four.

HOV lanes were established to lure single drivers into carpools to reduce traffic congestion. In the bargain, it was hoped that the concept would reduce exhaust pollution.

In principle HOV ought to work, but in reality it hasn't. HOV has been in use for about 20 years, and commuters still have not rushed to fill the empty space, despite rising fuel prices. From my observation, most vehicles in HOV lanes have one occupant, especially during the high-demand rush hours.

The HOV restriction is more destructive than productive. On I-95 south of the Beltway, the segregated HOV lanes are so underutilized during rush hours that they might as well not exist, and the remaining lane space is inadequate to meet the demand.

In the afternoon, traffic on the Beltway's inner loop upstream of the Interstate 270 exit backs up for miles. The backup occurs because HOV takes away a lane on I-270 and bottlenecks traffic into the remaining lanes. The disruption caused by HOV propagates across all six lanes of the inner loop and continues far upstream.

The function of a highway is to move traffic. The underused HOV lanes degrade the performance of the highway. Abolishing the HOV restriction would provide lane space to allow the highways to run more freely. The highways would be more egalitarian, and everyone would get home sooner.

Some HOV proponents see the traffic congestion endured by single commuters as just punishment for not joining carpools or using public transportation. But this is not the way to solve the nation's transportation problems.

Commuters will be squeezed out of their vehicles when driving alone becomes economically unpleasant. When the price of gasoline reaches $3 a gallon (and it will), commuters will begin looking for other ways to get to work.

Governments can encourage this by laying tariffs on imported crude oil or by levying additional taxes on gasoline at the pump. The additional public money could be used to improve and expand alternative transportation modes.

For example, government could allow Metrorail to raise fares so that it would be fully funded and could safely and effectively meet consumer demand. The fare increase could be offset by providing free parking at Metrorail stations. By eliminating the cost double whammy, more riders would be attracted to Metro and its business volume would increase. If Metrorail stations were treated as extensions of the Interstate highway system, highway funds could then be used to build parking garages at Metrorail stations. Highways are provided free of charge nationwide. Why not parking lots?

The HOV-2 lanes on I-270 cost about $90 million. The segregated HOV-3 lanes on I-95 south of the Beltway cost several times that. What the taxpayers are getting for that investment is inconsistent with the cost.

HOV is a failed concept. It deserves to be discarded.

-- Virgil H. Soule