Like a lot of you trapped on US 95 during the daily commute, I recently had time to conduct a brief survey while watching the blur of traffic on my left flow by in the HOV lane at a rate of speed usually reserved for NASCAR drivers.
I stopped counting at a dozen cars in a row whose occupants felt no compunction traveling solo in the lane reserved for two or more passengers per vehicle. As you know, this is a traffic sin punishable by the scowls and curses of throngs of rule-following motorists, but a transgression that only on rare occasions results in a citation.
Still haunted by my one year of Catholic school, my conscience wouldn’t let me join in the race to the special Hell reserved for scofflaws who cheat their fellow taxpayers and irreparably harm the environment by violating the HOV statute now in effect 24-7-365. That’s right: our disregarded HOV rule applies even at 3 o’clock in the morning, presumably because it’s always the right time to carpool.
For now, let’s set aside the fact that I drive like your belt-and-suspenders granddad. You know, the one who leaves the left-turn signal flashing. But even I have begun to wonder about the good sense of the HOV lanes, especially if so many people feel comfortable gleefully ignoring them.
As it turns out, I’m not alone. There is a movement afoot inside Las Vegas City Hall to make some strong suggestions about the HOV lane hours for the highway stretches that cross inside the city limits.
Let’s not dwell on the fact that when it comes to the many pressing issues facing the city there are bigger fish to fry. This HOV thing for months has been producing hot grit under the collars of City Council members Stavros Anthony, Michele Fiore, and others. In mid-July, the council instructed city staff to implore the Nevada Department of Transportation to consider a compromise outside the traditional rush-hour times. In other words, to revert to an earlier standard, one that better reflects statutes in other states.
Of the city officials who complained in a public meeting about the new law, Anthony’s lament seemed the most compelling. He’d clearly done a lot of thinking about this issue, probably while stranded in traffic.
Anthony says he’s been flooded with more than 500 citizen contacts about the extended hours and about the relative effectiveness of the HOV lanes generally. Counting the tweets and email and Facebook posts, “It’s the most public feedback I’ve ever received on anything since I’ve been on the City Council, and 95 percent of it is negative.”
Anthony knows something about the rules of the road. He spent 29 years as a police officer, including two as the commander of Metro’s motorcycle cops. He says he wouldn’t have instructed his officers to enforce the HOV lane law. Why?
“It doesn’t reduce accidents, injuries, or fatalities,” he says. “It’s trying to change behavior and it isn’t going to save lives. I would never tell my officers to go do the HOV enforcement because it’s a waste of time.”
He also appears to believe there’s something stranger at work: something like social engineering. Who uses HOV lane legally? People already traveling in pairs or better: Landscaping companies, moving companies, parents taking their children to school. They’re nice people, he argues, but they’re not carpooling.
And creating a lane with taxpayer money that doesn’t benefit all taxpayers seems unfair. Traffic studies aside, Anthony believes the HOV lanes might create more congestion in the other lanes. And if they break the law by crossing the line and actually do get caught, it’s a $300 fine.
Although I’m not sure carrying a note from Councilman Anthony will help you get out of paying an HOV violation, the Police Protective Association also endorses his view.
The point isn’t an obscure one. The issue is increasingly discussed in jurisdictions across the country, where some consider the appearance of hybrid lanes tantamount to highway robbery that targets the poor.
In Boston, the opening of carpool lanes on crazy congested I-93 have been vilified for creating more trouble than they solve. Controversies abound in Washington, D.C., Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles, too, where special “Lexus lanes” don’t reduce congestion, but do further illustrate the great American economic divide.
Undaunted by former officer Anthony’s wagging finger, Nevada Highway Patrol troopers issued more than 500 HOV citations in July after the law went into effect. And officials with the DOT have studies that show HOV lanes are effective when actually used properly, or drivers are wracked with guilt.
At the risk of being cut off in traffic and receiving a fusillade of epithets, I think it’s possible — even likely — that the problem with the HOV lanes isn’t the hours they’re in effect. It’s the crazy drivers who don’t follow the rules. I’m not saying Las Vegas drivers are rude, but if they could vote on it Nevada’s state bird would be the middle finger.
In a rapidly growing community with ineffective mass transportation, like most metropolises in the West, the lowly HOV lanes don’t stand much of a chance. And maybe they shouldn’t.
If we don’t carpool, the least Las Vegas drivers can do is learn to use the left-turn signal.
Or just do what I do, and leave it on full time.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith