California motorists who thought they could legally drive a hybrid solo in the carpool lane, starting today, will have to stay in the regular lanes -- for now.
Even though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill to open the lanes as of today, the California Highway Patrol will still slap single-occupant hybrids with a $271 ticket because the federal government, which helped fund the carpool lanes, has not approved the measure.
So while most of the state's 959 bills that Schwarzenegger signed into law take effect today, this one is tied up in a political traffic jam.
Other laws starting with 2005 include:
* Requiring children younger than 6 or lighter than 60 pounds to be secured in the back seat of a car or truck, signed into law in 2003 by Gov. Gray Davis.
* Prohibiting swimmers from the rough sport of "teak surfing" -- hanging off boats to ride wakes.
* Giving women convicted of certain crimes before Aug. 29, 1996, a chance at court reconsideration if there is evidence of domestic violence.
Some laws will touch the lives of millions of Californians. The state's primary election will return to June after eight years of being held in March. Motorists are now required to turn on their headlights in the daytime when driving through rain.
Other legislation -- such as a ban on the declawing of lions, tigers and other exotic cats -- is narrower.
The full effect of some new laws is unclear. One allows cities and counties to decide whether to allow pharmacists to sell up to 10 hypodermic needles per customer without a prescription. Schwarzenegger said he signed the bill because he believed it would help prevent the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases.
In the Southland -- the nation's capital of freeway congestion -- the mere hope of cruising solo in diamond lanes has spurred some residents to buy hybrids, low-emission cars that run on both gasoline and electricity for better fuel efficiency.
"It's become a strong selling point," said Michael Norris, sales manager at Toyota Santa Monica, which sold more than 650 Priuses in 2004 and is one of the largest hybrid dealerships in the nation.
Many hybrid dealers now routinely mention the possibility of driving in carpool lanes as part of their sales pitch to customers, and some customers also call on their own to inquire about the new law.
"It's probably increased hybrid sales by an additional 10%," Norris said. "The carpool lane is a huge advantage."
Hybrid car ownership has been skyrocketing across the state.
In July, California had 22,983 registered hybrid vehicles, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. By September, the most recent tally available, there were 33,627 hybrids on the road, nearly 50% more.
The waiting list for buying a hybrid vehicle remains several months long at some dealerships. Car manufacturers are planning to dramatically increase production this year.
Hybrid drivers said they were disappointed by the legal logjam.
"I had my fingers crossed that it would go through," said Jerry Burnham, an Atwater Village music administrator, who owns a Prius. "What's the federal hang-up?"
Last year, legislators slipped a line item for the hybrid exemption into a massive federal transportation reauthorization bill. But that bill has stalled because of disagreements between Congress and the White House on unrelated budget matters.
A stand-alone bill written by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) that would have allowed the California hybrid law never made it out of committee and expired at the end of the 2004 legislative session. Sherman plans to reintroduce his bill later this month.
"Hopefully, Congress will pass that in the first few months of this year," said Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), author of the state law, AB 2628. The bill received broad bipartisan support in Sacramento, Pavley said.
But even federal approval will not grant all hybrid cars an automatic pass.
California's law would permit only hybrid vehicles with at least 45 miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency onto the state's 1,200-mile network of high-occupancy vehicle lanes. The law would apply to the Toyota Prius, as well as Honda Civic and Insight hybrids. Solo drivers of less fuel-efficient hybrid models, including the Ford Escape and Honda Accord, would be barred from diamond lanes, legislative analysts say.
Drivers also must submit an application and pay an $8 fee to the DMV for yellow decals for their cars. There's no waiting list for the certifying stickers, because the department isn't accepting applications yet.
"We are not going to order the printing of the decals until Congress has approved it," said Bill Branch, spokesman for the DMV, citing the state's need to save money during tight budget times. "The printing and distribution to DMV offices will take approximately eight weeks."
Some impatient hybrid drivers don't want to wait that long.
Michael Bell, an Encino voice animator, had heard talk among his friends about the new law, and under the mistaken impression that it was already legal had begun driving solo in diamond lanes more than a year ago.
Bell said he planned to continue doing so as he drives to jobs at sound studios all over Los Angeles. He hopes CHP officers will look the other way.
"I refuse to sit behind some belching SUV in traffic!" he said.
Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.