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Life in the slow lane

April 11, 2006

IF CALIFORNIA WERE SERIOUS about using hybrid cars to promote energy conservation, it would ban them from the carpool lane, no matter the number of passengers they carry. After all, hybrids are thriftier on fuel in stop-and-go driving, not when flying down the highway.

But neither that nor any other sensible consideration drove Sacramento or Washington lawmakers' decision to allow the solo motorists in certain gas/electric vehicles to use carpool lanes. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius are just too efficient with fuel, too stingy with emissions -- in short, just too environmentally lovable -- not to be the object of some legislative kissy-face. It's all about feeling good, not doing good.

The idea behind the carpool law was to encourage sales of the most socially conscious hybrids, even though there already was a waiting list for them before the bill passed, as there is now. In fact, the law was written to encourage exactly as many hybrid sales as the automakers already were predicting. There may have been a sale or two since then to a driver who bought a hybrid solely for the carpool privileges. But if that driver hadn't bought it, another one would have.

Now the state will study whether the introduction so far of 50,000 more cars to the carpool lanes is slowing life down for the people who buddy up. Anecdotally, according to a recent report in The Times, the answer is yes. But that may simply reflect resentment from drivers who can't get into the lanes without a passenger. (Inevitably, that passenger is one who delivers blow-by-blow descriptions of his intense social interactions during a day of programming computers.)

Or maybe the resentment comes from that other socially conscious habit among hybrid drivers: keeping within the speed limit (yes, even in the carpool lane). It's so annoyingly safe and legal. The problem could be that, having been the object of so much public approval, hybrids were due for a comedown almost presidential in scope. Or it could simply be those glaringly self-satisfied little mustard-yellow carpool-lane access stickers that practically shout "neener-neener" as they slowly recede into the distance.

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