Faced with daily gridlock traffic in the morning, statistics show some single drivers repeatedly use the high occupancy vehicle lanes illegally in the same stretches of the interstate, and some are getting caught and ticketed 10 or more times within a single year.
State Trooper Rick Johnson told KIRO-7 part of the problem could be the fines for being a single occupant in an HOV lane.
Here in Washington state, the same violation is $136, and it does not go up, even if a driver is caught and ticketed multiple times in a week.
"A graduated fine for doing it more than once, like we do for using a cellphone, that might be a better deterrent," Johnson said.
By comparison, in California, the fine for being a single driver in an HOV lane starts at $491.
A driver pulled over by Johnson with California license plates said the fine is a deterrent there. "Coming from California, the violations are pretty high there, so I kind of know not to be in the carpool lane," said Cassandra, who said she rarely uses the HOV lanes without a passenger.
"When traffic comes to a complete stop all of the sudden, it forces a lot of people into the carpool lane," she said.
Johnson's heard every excuse from single drivers. "I've heard, 'Oh, I forgot I didn't have my kids in the back!'"
He's seen violators use everything from stuffed Donald Ducks to posters of Donald Trump in their passenger seats, even wadding towels and blankets in car seats to make it appear like they have a passenger.
Troopers say in 2017, they pulled over 11,330 drivers for HOV lane violations. KIRO-7 dug through those Washington State Patrol violations, and 428 of the drivers ticketed were repeat violators. Those numbers also revealed the same drivers being ticketed eight or more times. Records show one driver was ticketed 11 times within 14 months.
KIRO-7 research of WSP records show some repeat HOV offenders were caught multiple times in the same week along the same stretches of I-405 and I-5.
In 70,000 HOV violations spanning multiple years, the top "hot" spot is the northbound I-405 curve north of Renton, between mileposts three and five. There, 4,650 drivers were ticketed for being a single driver in the restricted lane.
No. 2 is northbound I-5 south of the West Seattle Bridge, where 977 single drivers were caught and ticketed. Southbound I-5 just south of Everett is the third most prolific area for HOV violators, with 947 drivers being given the $136 ticket there.
"For them it's like, 'Well, if I get caught, it's kind of the cost of my commute,’” Johnson said.
"For too many people, the $136 simply isn't a deterrent, so we'll be working legislatively to address that," said Capt. Ron Mead, with the Washington State Patrol.
Troopers say single-occupancy HOV use also causes road rage. They say drivers have been arrested after trying to run violators off the road.
The 33-year-old HERO program encourages anyone to report single drivers who cheat, but the Washington State Department of Transportation can't legally fine those drivers. They can only send them brochures and stern letters to repeat offenders. In one year, records show WSDOT sent 26,753 brochures to drivers reported through the HERO program.
Still, troopers find more single faces in the HOV races than they can safely stop.
Until the fines are raised, troopers will nab them, one at a time, again and again.
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