- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 13, 2005

The sun has not crept above the horizon, but already more than two dozen commuters are lined up at a parking lot near a restaurant about 15 miles south of the District.

A man in a silver Toyota Corolla pulls up and rolls down his window. “L’Enfant?” he shouts to no one in particular.

At first, there is no response. A man eventually opens the door and climbs inside, then another. With three persons aboard — enough to legally travel in the high-occupancy vehicle lanes — the car speeds toward Interstate 395 and on to L’Enfant Plaza, a downtown area surrounded by federal office buildings.

The idea of getting into a car with strangers, known as “slugging,” is embraced each day by thousands of commuters eager to avoid crawling in stop-and-go traffic on the heavily congested corridor that slices through Northern Virginia.

This unique form of carpooling has been around for nearly 35 years, ever since the first HOV lanes were constructed in the region. But lately, some worry the system is coming under threat from an unlikely source: hybrid vehicles.

Although officials acknowledge an ongoing problem with solo drivers who cruise illegally in the HOV lanes, they say hybrids have become too much of a good thing — thanks to an exemption allowing motorists to travel alone in the cars, which run on a combination of gas and electricity and emit fewer harmful fumes than regular vehicles.

Indeed, a traffic count in the carpool lanes by a task force of Virginia transportation officials found the number of hybrids more than tripled from 480 last spring to 1,700 in October, accounting for 18 percent of all HOV traffic. The rapid growth of hybrids has pushed the HOV lanes beyond the recommended capacity, officials said.

In response to those findings, the task force is urging state leaders not to extend the hybrid exemption when it ends in June 2006.

But Delegate Michele B. McQuigg, Prince William Republican, does not want to wait that long. Mrs. McQuigg introduced a bill in this year’s General Assembly session that would have prevented the state from issuing any new “clean fuel” license plates this summer, effectively banning any new hybrids from entering HOV lanes July 1. The bill failed in committee.

“Nobody’s going to be moving if we’re not careful,” said Mrs. McQuigg, who introduced the legislation after being inundated with complaints from constituents. “Just the sheer number of people moving into the area creates congestion problems.”

Transportation officials warn that if the HOV lanes become as congested as regular lanes, “slugs” could begin driving on their own, adding more cars to the roads.

Kristine Johnson, a slug who travels about 25 miles from Woodbridge to her job at an Arlington architecture firm, said she has noticed a gradual increase in traffic in the past year.

“In the afternoon, it’s all hybrids around me,” she said. “It’s definitely not what it used to be. I used to be able to get home in 30 minutes. Now it takes 45.”

The topic of hybrids also has dominated a Web site devoted to slugging, www.slug-lines.com. One user named “Defender” recently wrote, “The Virginia Legislators need to excise the cancer from the HOV. They need to end all exceptions that allow solo drivers in these lanes.”

But some question whether it is fair to make hybrids the scapegoat. Solo drivers in regular vehicles continue to violate the three-person rule, despite a new law that doubles some fines. The law that took effect in July increased fines to as much as $1,000 for a fourth offense. In addition, third- and fourth-time violators could receive three demerit points on their driving records.

“In some cases, people said it was cheaper to pay the [old] fines than to show up late for work,” said Virginia State Police Capt. G. Michael Counts. “We still have a lot of offenders, but I think it’s safe to say we’re getting less repeat offenders.”

Statistics compiled by state police appear to support that claim. Analyst Bud Cox said 15,797 tickets were issued to HOV violators last year, including about 7,800 after the fines doubled. That is down from more than 19,042 tickets issued in 2003, Mr. Cox said, although police do not know how many of those tickets were issued to repeat violators.

The number of officers who patrol the HOV lanes has not increased since the fines doubled, police said. To compensate for a lack of manpower, officers are being encouraged to earn extra money by working overtime.

“Sometimes HOV can’t be that much of a priority when we’re dealing with things like aggressive driving,” Capt. Counts said.

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