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Are Some Carpool Lanes Stricter Than Others?

The carpool lane has saved many a gleeful pair from having to wait it out in slow-moving, rush hour traffic. But are some carpool lanes only usable if there’s a third person in the back seat? Yes! According to the California Department of Transportation, parts of the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and San Diego allow carpool lane use only when there are three or more people per vehicle. Specifically, these lanes are on I-80 and I-880 up North, and in the South, the I-10 El Monte Bus Way and I-5 near San Diego and San Ysidro. Thankfully, drivers needn’t memorize which lanes feature these requirements; the signs will say.

As is the case with any law, there are exceptions. Motorcycles, for example, are generally allowed in all HOV lanes. Also, don’t forget that clean-air vehicles are allowed to travel in these lanes, if they display the required DMV sticker. And in the Bay Area, vehicles in 3+ occupant lanes may carry two passengers, if they were originally designed to carry no more than this, and there are two people riding in them at the time of use. In this part of the state, HOV lanes are available Monday through Friday, during peak traffic hours. During non-peak hours, any vehicle may use them. In Southern California, though, HOV lanes operate 24-hours a day, and users must always qualify based on the restrictions. Violating HOV lane rules can get you a fine of at least $481 ($480? You wish).

A few more fun facts: Cal Trans reports that in some areas, almost half of the freeway’s traffic occurs in HOV lanes. Also, whenever the state determines the need for a new HOV lane, it will build an additional one, rather than changing an existing lane to have HOV status. And finally, if you’re contemplating how to make the most of the HOV lane, remember that Cal Trans is one step ahead of you. As the organization states in the Frequently Asked Questions section of its website, “Each child counts as an occupant, but pets, infants still in the womb, inflatable dolls or ghosts do not (we've heard 'em all).”


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