Use of an experimental car-pool lane on the Costa Mesa Freeway has increased by more than 30%, and the number of accidents also has gone up, according to a nine-month status report released Monday by Caltrans.
But the report, released at a bimonthly meeting of the Orange County Transportation Commission in Santa Ana, said the increase in accidents was in line with an overall increase in the volume of cars and not specifically related to use of the car-pool lane.
Monday's update on the car-pool lane by the California Department of Transportation comes on the heels of a UC Irvine study issued last week that produced "inconclusive" results about the lane's safety.
Critics of the car-pool lane charged Monday that the data used in the Caltrans report was "false and misleading," and exaggerated the increase in total capacity that the car-pool lane has allowed the freeway to bear.
Traffic Increase Cited
The Caltrans report cited an average increase in daily traffic of 31% to 39%, depending on where measurements were taken along the Costa Mesa Freeway, since the commuter lane was implemented in November, 1985.
Bill Ward, technical director of Drivers for Highway Safety, a grass-roots organization critical of the car-pool lane, claimed that Caltrans has relied on old data that "makes the project look better than it really is."
Ward particularly criticized Caltrans' base data between 1980 and 1985, which showed that the number of average daily trips on the freeway ranged from 115,000 to 125,000. Beginning in November, 1985, with the advent of the car-pool lane experiment, Caltrans data indicates a jump to 165,000 average daily trips on the freeway.
"Those are not based on actual counts," Ward said of the 1980-1985 baseline information. "They just kept printing the old count."
"It makes it look like there was data there, when in fact, no data was collected," he said. "That's known to be false and misleading information."
Ron Klusza, one of the authors of the Caltrans report, said Monday that the data was not "false." But he said he was not sure whether the traffic-count information had been upgraded annually.
"I cannot say that those are based on actual counts," Klusza said. "They are not false. To my best knowledge, they're the best representation as to what the average daily traffic was."
Klusza explained that average daily traffic counts showed no apparent increase from 1981 to 1985 because "when a highway becomes congested, people find alternate routes. When people find alternate routes, average daily traffic does not increase."
Other findings in the status report indicate that there has been "no significant increase or decrease" in the accident rate since the car-pool lane was implemented. Instead, the accident rate has grown along with an overall trend of increased accidents since early 1984.
"There has been a general rise in the number of accidents on the Route 55 freeway. This correlates with the general rise in the volumes and vehicle miles traveled on the freeway," the report said.
But Ward disagreed. Referring to the UCI report prepared by the university's Institute for Transportation Studies, he said that weekday accidents in dry weather have increased since the commuter-lane experiment began.
"If you take a careful look, you can clearly see that the (car-pool) lane has caused accidents to go up," he said.
The UCI study could not determine the cause of the increased number of accidents. Contributing factors include a reduction in the widths of the general traffic lanes, the elimination of a median shoulder to accommodate the commuter lane, and higher traffic volumes, the study suggested.
Although the UCI study noted "several clear changes in accident characteristics before and after the (car-pool) lane," its authors termed the report "inconclusive" and said more investigation was needed.
The Caltrans report said that more people per car are now being carried on the freeway "than ever before." During the afternoon rush, more than 1,500 vehicles per hour use the commuter lane, which extends about 11 miles northbound and southbound between the San Diego and the Riverside freeways. The report also said that travel times on the freeway have been reduced from an average of 35 minutes before instituting the commuter lanes to about 30 minutes in the mornings and 23 minutes in the afternoons.
At the meeting, commissioners asked for tougher enforcement of car-pool lane regulations. The OCTC asked that Caltrans officials meet with California Highway Patrol officers to devise ways to catch drivers who use the lane illegally or those who enter or exit the lanes illegally.
Tom Fortune, spokesman for the commission, said officers now write "an average of 300 tickets a month" for car-pool lane violations. "The question is," he said, "Is that enough to act as a deterrent?"