Hybrid car owners can continue to use faster carpool lanes in Virginia thanks to a new state law, but they risk a ticket if they don't have the right license plate.
This year's General Assembly extended indefinitely a rule allowing drivers of fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles to ride in the faster "high occupancy vehicle" lanes along the Dulles Toll Road, Interstate 66 and Interstate 95/395, even if they're riding alone.
Lawmakers intended to simplify a law that previously had to be approved every year, leaving hybrid owners to wonder whether it was still legal for them to use the HOV lanes. But the rules still aren't so simple.
Hybrid drivers can only use the HOV lanes along I-66 if their clean fuel license plates were issued before July 1, 2011. Only hybrids with plates issued before July 1, 2006 can use HOV lanes on I-95/395. Any hybrid can use the carpool lanes on the Dulles Toll Road.
Lawmakers agreed in 1994 to allow anyone with a hybrid car to use the carpool lanes as a way to encourage Virginians to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. But when hybrids became more popular, they also started to clog the HOV lanes, infuriating carpoolers.
"We got a lot of calls from motorists seeing a difference, saying there were way too many hybrids out," said Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Joan Morris.
Lawmakers responded by restricting hybrid owners' access to HOV lanes but made exceptions for anyone who was already using the HOV lanes before the restrictions were put in place. Restrictions were placed on I-95/395 in 2006, and so hybrids bought before then were allowed to continue using it. Restrictions were placed on I-66in 2011. The license plates from each year are different so police can tell at a glance when they were issued.
Del. Tag Greason, R-Loudoun, who sponsored the new extension and drives a hybrid, defends having different rules on each road.
"Sometimes a one-size-fits-all decision is not the best decision. What about the individual who went out and bought a hybrid specifically because the law said they could use this and then we go ahead and change that?" he said. "To change that with one fell swoop would probably be unfair to those who made that investment in the first place."
But the state police won't be cutting drivers any slack just because the law is confusing.
"Enforcing HOV rules -- that's what makes HOV effective," said Virginia State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller. "Our guys take HOV rules very seriously."