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Washington drivers confused about HOV lanes, admit to abusing lane privileges

March 31, 2011

SEATTLE – While most Washington drivers describe themselves as law-abiding, and even polite, a surprising number of drivers admit to crossing the line when it comes to high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes by using them without the required number of occupants, according to a recent poll by PEMCO Insurance.

The Seattle-based insurer found that while the vast majority of Washington drivers describe themselves as polite drivers, about one-quarter of the same drivers admit to breaking the law by using HOV lanes without the required number of passengers aboard.

“We’re surprised to learn so many drivers admit to using carpool lanes when they’re not supposed to. We’re not sure why this is the case, but one explanation could be that drivers are simply confused by when and where HOV restrictions are enforced – it changes depending on the time of day and which freeway you’re using,” said PEMCO spokesperson Jon Osterberg.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents don’t know that HOV lanes on I-5 are off-limits to solo drivers at all times, and 46 percent don’t know that HOV restrictions on I-405 are not enforced 24 hours per day, seven days per week, according to the poll.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, HOV lanes in the Puget Sound region to the west of Lake Washington, such as I-5, are in operation 24 hours per day, seven days per week. HOV lanes on the east side of the lake, including I-405 and parts of SR 520, operate between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. and are open to all drivers outside of those times.

In most cases, vehicles carrying two people including the driver are eligible to use HOV lanes, though a few exceptions exist on Washington freeways, including stretches of SR 520 that set the passenger requirement at three occupants including the driver during hours of enforcement.

Failure to comply with HOV laws is considered a moving violation and comes with a $124 fine.

The poll also indicates that 61 percent of respondents witness solo drivers using HOV lanes illegally at least sometimes and, of those respondents, 18 percent say they see the violation often.

“That could be another contributing factor to misuse of HOV lanes.  Drivers see other solo drivers sailing by in the HOV lane and figure it must be OK to join them even if they don’t meet the lane’s passenger or time requirements,” Osterberg added. 

Solo drivers in a hurry can dodge HOV requirements and opt to pay an electronic fee to use qualified carpool lanes on some Washington highways, known as high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes.

According to the poll, opinion remains divided on the effectiveness of HOT lanes and usage among respondents is extremely low. Just 5 percent report ever having paid the fee to use Washington’s only HOT lane on SR 167.

When it comes to speed limits, the PEMCO poll also examined a traffic management method known as speed harmonization.  In an effort to reduce congestion, electronic signs post variable speed limits depending on the flow of traffic along some Washington freeways.  When traffic is heavy, speed harmonization signs post reduced speed limits to slow the flow of traffic in advance of a major traffic jam.

The polls shows overall support of speed harmonization among poll respondents has increased significantly from 37 to 55 percent since PEMCO first asked Washington drivers about the technique in 2008.

However, two-thirds of drivers question the effectiveness of variable speed limits at improving traffic congestion and reducing collisions, and, of those who have direct experience driving under speed harmonization conditions, support is waning.

Regardless of public opinion, exceeding the posted variable speed limit is considered speeding and violators are subject to the same consequences enforced by static speed limit signs.

As for the vast majority who consider themselves polite behind the wheel, PEMCO gauges polite and aggressive driving by asking drivers how often they exhibit courteous driving behavior.  The latest poll found that two-thirds say they go out of their way to be polite upwards of five times per month, with 45 percent of those drivers reporting more than 10 polite gestures per month.

To learn more about the PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll and to view a summary of the results, visit www.pemco.com/poll, where the public is invited to participate in an informal version of the poll to see how their own responses compare to those collected by FBK Research of Seattle in November 2010.

About the PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll

PEMCO Insurance commissioned this independent survey that asked Washington drivers in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties several questions about driving habits and attitudes toward current Northwest issues. The sample size, 422 respondents, yields an accuracy of +/- 4.9 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. In other words, if this study were conducted 100 times, in 95 instances the data will not vary by more than +/- 4.9 percent.

About PEMCO Insurance

PEMCO Insurance, established in 1949, is a Seattle-based provider of auto, home, boat, life, and umbrella insurance to Washington state residents. PEMCO Insurance is sold by community agents throughout the state and through PEMCO offices. For more information, visit www.pemco.com.

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