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Legislator proposes carpool snitch line

His bill would result in warning notices, not tickets, to illegal solo drivers in HOV lanes.

March 27, 2007|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

A California lawmaker hopes to force illegal solo drivers out of carpool lanes by taking a page from the parents' handbook: He plans to use shame and guilt.

State Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) has introduced a bill that would encourage motorists to report carpool cheats. Those complaints would warrant warnings -- not tickets.

Maldonado believes that solo drivers would be less tempted to break the law if they knew extra eyes were watching them. "It's important for public safety and to move the flow of traffic," he said.

Maldonado's bill, SB 889, would direct the state Department of Motor Vehicles to set up a toll-free number and e-mail address to report solo drivers in high-occupancy-vehicle lanes, except for those in qualified hybrid vehicles. California motorists already are encouraged to report drunken drivers by calling 911 on their cellphones.

The legislation was introduced in response to complaints from Maldonado's constituents in the San Jose area. They were most infuriated by drivers crossing in and out of the doubleyellow lines trying to avoid California Highway Patrol officers.

The proposal is based on a similar program in Washington state, which is credited with reducing violations in the Seattle area to 5% of the vehicles in carpool lanes. The national average is 10% to 15%.

Under Maldonado's bill, accused drivers would be mailed a brochure on the proper use of carpool lanes along with a warning that if caught by law enforcement, they could face a $381 fine. Only law enforcement officers can issue traffic citations.

Complaining motorists, who remain anonymous, would be asked to provide the vehicle's license plate number, time of day and location. In Washington, motorists can appeal the accusation.

If the DMV were to find a pattern of violations, officials could alert the CHP to target enforcement.

According to Caltrans officials, fewer than 2% of the vehicles in carpool lanes in Los Angeles County are there illegally.

CHP officers wrote 69,000 citations for such violations last year, down from 73,898 in 2005, according to statewide statistics. About 30,000 were written in the Los Angeles area.

Washington's program, created in 1984, began as an effort to educate drivers unfamiliar with the rules of the newly dedicated carpool lanes, said Cathy Tao-Alexanderson, who runs the program. At the time, she said, many drivers incorrectly believed they could use the lanes for passing.

"This gave us a way for people like us, who obey the rules, to report people who violate the rules," Tao-Alexanderson said, noting that carpool lane violations are a low priority for law enforcement officials.

Nearly 36,000 motorists reported a cheater in 2004, up 13% from the previous year, according to Washington officials. Fewer than 3% were reported a second time.

An unexpected side benefit is a reduction in road rage, TaoAlexanderson said. Instead of cursing and trying to cut off solo motorists in the carpool lanes, she said, drivers just call the hotline. "They yell and scream at us," she said.

jean.guccione@latimes.com

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