Allow hybrids full use of HOV lanes, but enforcement is tricky

On May 1, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

Today’s Topic: HOV lanes may make room for energy-efficient cars Tennessean.com May 1, 2008 A proposal to allow hybrids or alternative-fuel vehicles to use the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on the highways is an excellent example of how the state should approach highway congestion and environmental concerns. As always, the real sticking point on HOV lanes is […]

Today’s Topic: HOV lanes may make room for energy-efficient cars

Tennessean.com
May 1, 2008

A proposal to allow hybrids or alternative-fuel vehicles to use the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on the highways is an excellent example of how the state should approach highway congestion and environmental concerns.

As always, the real sticking point on HOV lanes is the ability to enforce the restrictions, because it can be not only difficult but dangerous to police abuse of the lanes. Equally important is making sure any changes in HOV policies are in line with federal guidelines, because the state faces the loss of federal funds if standards are not followed closely.

But in principle, the allowance of vehicles that burn low amounts of gas is a common-sense approach. Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, are heading legislation that would add alternative-fuel and hybrid-electric vehicles to the current list allowed to use HOV lanes. Such vehicles are currently somewhat rare and can be expensive, but in time they represent the way to go on the nation’s roads. Environmental awareness is emerging in some extremely encouraging ways, and government should seize every opportunity to reduce emissions that foul the air. Caution is advised, however, on the need to recognize vehicles that are truly low-emission hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles. Just calling a model a hybrid might not always equate to effectively reducing emissions. Unless vehicles meet the concept behind the legislation, the HOV access becomes even more complicated.

HOV lanes have become a source of controversy in their own right. Drivers are often caught in rush-hour traffic, only to see HOV lanes sitting underused, which adds to motorists’ frustration. Then there is the disgruntlement of law-abiding drivers seeing the HOV lane used by a vehicle with only the driver inside and a lack of enforcement. It doesn’t take long to see the problems law enforcement officials face in cracking down on HOV abuse. There often is not enough room to pull vehicles over safely. Officers are put in the position of having to make difficult decisions when gradually getting a car to move to the right to be cited. Even at that, the penalty is only $50. Hurried drivers may feel it’s worth the risk of not getting caught.

Abuse can be rampant. Tennessean staffers went out last fall to assess how many drivers were abusing interstate HOV lanes in a Nashville morning rush hour. The group found 70 percent of the 1,576 cars it counted on Interstate 24 at Blue Hole Road in Antioch to be violating the lane law; 70.5 percent in violation on I-65 at Concord Road in Brentwood; and 62 percent in violation on I-40 at Old Hickory Boulevard in Hermitage. Law enforcement officers cannot be expected to monitor all HOV lanes, so the challenge is daunting. Advocates of allowing hybrids to use the lanes suggest a system of providing decals to help identify qualifying vehicles. Any such system would involve the cost of administering the decal use.

But the state should enhance the opportunities to reduce emissions wherever it can. Given that HOV lanes are not packed with high-occupancy vehicles, it makes sense to allow single-occupancy hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles the use of those lanes.

The broad issues of highway congestion and emissions will continue to evolve. The state cannot continue to add lanes to the interstate highways forever. Efforts to enhance mass transportation will only gain in importance. Americans love their cars, and getting a substantial number of people to change their habits won’t be done quickly or easily. But the state should continue to show that it is serious about tackling environmental issues and that it is in tune with the need for more mass transit. Policies should continue to be evaluated and adjusted. In the meantime, hybrids have a place in the HOV lanes.