For years, we’ve covered California’s High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane access perks for drivers of ultra-low or zero-emissions cars.
Reasonably simple to understand, with a few exceptions, California’s HOV lane rules allows drivers of qualifying vehicles fitted with official HOV lane access stickers to drive in the HOV lane, even if they are the only person in the car.
Other states -- like the Commonwealth of Virginia -- have HOV Lane access perks for drivers of green cars. But as The Washington Post explained recently, sometimes the rules over who can use the HOV lanes are anything but clear.
Unlike California, which identifies cars that can legally use the HOV lane with official rear quarter-panel stickers, Virginia requires eligible cars are fitted with clean-fuel plates in order to police access to HOV lanes.
Then, it gets complicated.
On the roads of Northern Virginia, the same roads used daily by tens of thousands of commuters driving in and around the greater Washington DC metro area, the rules over Hybrid HOV lane exemption vary from road to road.
2006 Toyota Prius
For example, if you own a hybrid car with clean-fuel plates, you can only drive in the HOV lanes on I-66 during rush hours, and ONLY if your car had its plates issued before July 1, 2011.
On I-95 and I-395, the law makes similar concessions during rush hour, but only if your car has clean-fuel plates issued before July 1, 2006.
Meanwhile, to drive in the HOV lanes of the Dulles Toll Road, all vehicles with clean fuel plates are allowed to use the HOV lanes during rush hour.
Drive a 100 percent zero-emission car, such as those powered by hydrogen or electricity, and you can use all of Virginia’s carpool lanes with impunity provided your car has the required Virginia clean-fuel plates.
As for the 2012 Chevrolet Volt, 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid and 2012 Fisker Karma?
2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, production version road test, San Diego, CA, Jan 2012
Because each of the above can be driven in electric or gasoline modes, all three vehicles are caught in regulatory purgatory.
Eligible for clean-fuel plates under Virginia law, owners of these new plug-in hybrids can use the Dulles Toll Road HOV lanes during rush hour, but are too new to benefit from other HOV lane perks on I-95, I-395 and I-66.
In other words, the clean-fuel plate gives them HOV lane access on one road.
Meanwhile, drivers of older Hybrid cars, ones with worse gas mileage than either the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid or 2012 Chevrolet Volt, benefit from Virginia’s previous HOV lane perks.
The problem becomes even worse for drivers with green cars registered in Maryland or the District of Columbia. Regardless of fuel type, if the car doesn’t have Virginia clean-fuel plates, it can’t make use of HOV lane exemptions.
In an area where commuters regularly travel freely between all three areas, Virginia’s muddy HOV lane rules risk damaging green car sales figures.
Do you live in Northern Virginia? Are you confused about HOV lane access, and what solution would you like to suggest to solve the confusion?
Let us know your thoughts in the Comments below.