How Do HOV Lanes Work?

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What are HOV lanes? Who can use HOV lanes? How do HOV lanes work?

High-occupancy vehicle lanes, also known as HOV lanes, are one or more lanes on a roadway that are restricted in order to encourage more people to ride in the same vehicles together. HOV lanes are for the exclusive use of carpools, van pools, and buses, rewarding multiple-occupant vehicles with less traffic for faster arrivals at their destinations.

HOV lanes can be a single lane with distinctive markings on regular roadway. They can be their own, separate roadway, like the four HOV lanes on I-10 in Los Angeles. HOV lanes may be higher or lower than regular lanes, separated from other traffic lanes by a concrete barrier, or just marked with a special white stripe that drivers are expected to respect. HOV lanes aren’t just maintained by the honor system. Patrol officers regularly ticket violators of the rules for using these higher-speed lanes.

Who Can Use HOV Lanes?

When HOV lanes first came on the scene in the middle of the 1990s, most of the time they were intended to reward drivers for carpooling. The idea was that if, for example, carpooling saved 10 minutes on a 10-mile ride, drivers would find people to share their ride to work so all of them could save on fuel and get to work sooner.

The original idea didn’t really work. Drivers either quickly learned that HOV lanes can be as slow as any other lane when there are pokey drivers or accidents, and that pretending to be a high-occupancy vehicle sometimes helped them evade detection by patrol cars. Very soon after HOV lanes were built, departments of transportation all over the United States came up with new ways to use HOV lanes to reward “desirable” driving habits.

Here are some examples:

  • Most states count babies in the back seat toward the two or three occupants needed to use the HOV lane,but only after they are born.
  • Federal law made HOV lanes available to motorcycles all over the United States. If you drive into Canada, this is the rule except in Ontario.
  • Some transportation departments made HOV lanes available to all “green” and energy-efficient vehicles, regardless of how many people were riding in the car. These exemptions went to hybrid cars and battery-operated electric vehicles.
  • Most cities and states made HOV lanes available to buses that can carry 16 or more passengers. 
  • Some cities even made HOV lanes accessible to bicycles.

These rules didn’t fill the HOV lanes, either, so many states started offering access to the high-speed to drivers paying a toll. There are still physical toll booths in the Northeast and in Florida, but the fare for using an HOT (high-occupancy toll) lane nowadays is usually collected electronically. The driver may have a transponder for a prepaid toll device on the dashboard or in the windshield of the car (placing anything in the windshield may be illegal in some states), or a scanner may read the car’s license plate and mail the owner a bill.

The price for using the HOV or HOT lane may go up or down dramatically depending on how much traffic is in the other lanes. HOT lanes may cost 20 times as much in heavy traffic as in light. The charge is automatically calculated as cameras measure road traffic.

Washington State, as you might imagine, has its own rules.

HOV, HOT, and Express Toll Lane Rules in Washington State

The State of Washington has HOV lanes (also known as diamond or carpool lanes), HOT lanes, and Express Toll lanes on Interstate 5, Interstate 90, State Route 16, State Route 167, and State Route 520.

The rules for these lanes get a little complicated.

  • Motorcycles are always permitted to use HOV and HOT lanes because of federal law.
  • On SR 167 and I-405, drivers traveling alone are also allowed to use express lanes if they pay a toll. The amount of the toll changes every few minutes to make sure only a limited number of single-occupant drivers use the express lanes. This keeps the HOV and HOT lanes from becoming just as crowded as the rest of the highway.
  • I-405 drivers can use the toll lanes for free if they have a Good to Go! Flex Pass and they have a minimum number of occupants in their vehicle. The number of occupants per vehicle changes according to time of day. Using these lanes during rush hour requires three or more people in the car.
  • The SR 167 HOT Lanes are always available for vehicles with two or more occupants to use for free. Drivers don’t have to have a Good to Go! account or a Good to Go! account to use these lanes without charge, but if they do have a Good to Go! credential, it must be set to HOV mode, or a fee will for using the lane will be charged.

Does all of this sound a little complicated? There is another way. Call Around the Sound and leave the driving to us.

Uber and Lyft can be great if you don’t have any trouble getting in and out of their cars. Lyft cancels your ride if another driver is within a mile of your pickup point, though, so you sometimes will have your ride canceled 10 or more times by their pickup algorithm. This isn’t the greatest experience in Seattle’s famous rain.

Public transportation options exist for wheelchair and scooter users, but the routes or limited and access is first-come, first-served. And chances are that getting around by helicopter would pose a problem for your budget.

Around the Sound is Western Washington’s leading provider of local and regional transportation for people who have special transportation needs. Our experienced and compassionate drivers can help you have a great trip without the hassle of hailing a car, planned out in advance so you can make the most of your trop. Call us at (253) 858-7088 to discuss your options or Reserve a Ride Now! 

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