California HOV Sticker

In the mixed bag of hybrid incentives designed to encourage car shoppers to buy greener cars, access to carpool lanes while driving solo has been one more push in the right direction. But California legislators are now debating if they are setting the standards high enough with hybrids that get 45 mpg—the previous mark to qualify before the program reached its limit of HOV stickers in 2007.

Approximately 85,000 hybrid owners in California—and thousands more in Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Tennessee, Arizona, and Utah—currently enjoy the privilege of driving in a carpool lane regardless of the number of people in the car. But several of those incentive laws are scheduled to expire. The California perk is scheduled to end on Jan. 1, 2011.

“What we’re saying is that the hybrid isn’t good enough anymore,” Adam Keigwin, chief of staff for Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), sponsor of a Senate bill to require city-highway fuel economy of 65 mpg or better to qualify for HOV stickers, told the Los Angeles Times. That’s currently beyond official ratings for any mainstream car on the market, including the 50-mpg Toyota Prius. Furthermore, Californians will have few, if any, affordable cars that achieve 65 mpg in the next couple of years—and demand for those cars, when they arrive, are likely to far exceed low production numbers.

Critics complain that states’ carpool lanes have become clogged by solo-driving hybrid owners. Others argue that the incentives were successful in promoting hybrids in recent years, but given the popularity of gas-electric vehicles, the incentives are no longer necessary. (Hybrids currently comprise less than 3 percent of the new car market.) Environmentalists have also questioned if hybrid owners, who are predispositioned to carpool, are discouraged to do so by the privilege.

The Virginia hybrid carpool lane perk, which includes nearly every hybrid on the market regardless of MPG, was supposed to expire in July 1, 2006. It has been extended for one year in every legislative session since then. Observers believe that Virginia lawmakers will continue to extend the hybrid sticker program because of its political popularity—especially among legislators and other professionals in the Washington, DC area.