Washington is a state best known for its natural beauty. Despite this, most of the residents in Washington work in urban areas, and rely on the state’s many major freeways when it comes to getting to work every morning, and getting home every evening. A large number of these commuters take advantage of Washington’s many car pool lanes, which help those who are ride sharing save valuable time and money every work day.
Car pool lanes are freeway lanes that are only for vehicles with multiple occupants. In general, cars with only a driver, and no passengers are not allowed in car pool lanes, though there are some rare exceptions, which will be covered here. Most cars on the freeway only have one occupant, which means that the car pool lanes are almost always free of congestion and traffic. This allows the car pool lanes to operate at a high speed, even when the rest of the freeway is stuck in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. By having a fast and efficient lane for carpoolers, those who ride share to work are rewarded, and those who don’t are encouraged to start carpooling. This helps remove vehicles from the road, which reduces traffic on the freeway, lowers carbon emissions, and limits the amount of damage to Washington’s roads (and, as a result, lowers the road repair costs for taxpayers). Add it all up, and car pool lanes are some of the most vital features and rules on the road.
As is the case with all traffic laws, it’s important to always obey the rules of the car pool lane, so that you don’t end up with a hefty ticket. The car pool lane rules vary from state to state, but thankfully they’re very simple and easy to follow in Washington.
Where are the car pool lanes?
There are more than 125 miles of car pool lanes in Washington, across most of the state’s major freeways, making it one of the best states in the nation for carpooling. The car pool lanes in Washington are always on the far left side of the freeway, directly adjacent to the barrier or the oncoming traffic. The lanes run side by side with the all-access lanes, and never detach from them, though you can occasionally make an exit directly from the car pool lanes. However, you will usually have to merge to the standard far right lane when you wish to get off of the freeway.
The car pool lanes are marked by signs on the side of the freeway, and hanging above the car pool lanes. These signs will note that the it is a car pool or HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane, or will simply include a symbol of a diamond. The diamond will also be painted directly on the car pool lane.
What are the basic car pool lane rules?
Almost all of the car pool lanes in Washington require a minimum of two occupants, including the driver, though there are a few lanes where the minimum is three. Be sure to always check the signs above the car pool lanes, as they will tell you what the minimum number of occupants is for that specific lane. Even though car pool lanes were designed to encourage and incentivize people to ride share to work together, there are no limits on who your occupants can be. Even if you are driving with friends or your children, you can legally be in the car pool lane.
Since Washington has a host of different car pool lanes, there is no universal schedule for them. Each car pool lane operates on the schedule that makes the most sense given its location and the flow of its traffic. Some car pool lanes are only open during morning rush hour, while others are open during the evening rush hour. Some are open during both rush hours, and on the weekends. The signs above the car pool lanes will let you know when the lane you’re getting into is open. When car pool lanes are not open, they become general access lanes, and everyone can drive in them.
There are a few car pool lanes that are also express lanes. In express lanes, solo drivers can pay a toll for the right to drive in the car pool lane. This requires the driver to set up a Good to Go account, so that they can pay the tolls when driving in the car pool lanes, rather than being given a ticket. Carpoolers who have a Good to Go account can turn off the transponder when they have multiple occupants in their vehicle, so that they don’t get charged a toll while legally carpooling.
What vehicles are allowed in the car pool lanes?
In addition to vehicles with the minimum number of occupants, and those with Good to Go accounts in express lanes, there are a few other vehicles that are allowed in car pool lanes. Motorcycles can legally drive in the car pool lane with only one occupant, because they are small and fast, and therefore don’t add any congestion to the lane. It’s also significantly safer for a motorcycle to drive in the car pool lane than in bumper to bumper traffic.
City buses and on duty emergency vehicles are also exempt from the car pool lane occupant restrictions.
Many states allow alternative fuel vehicles (such as plug-in electric cars and gas-electric hybrids) to drive in the car pool lane even with one occupant. The purpose of this is to reward those who purchase environmentally friendly cars, and incentivize others to do the same. Washington does not currently have this exemption, but they are studying its efficacy and considering it. If you have an alternative fuel vehicle, keep your eye open, as you may soon be able to drive in the car pool lanes in Washington.
However, there are a few vehicles that cannot legally operate in the car pool lane, even if they have multiple occupants. The car pool lane is the fast lane, so vehicles that are unable to safely or legally maintain a high freeway speed are not allowed. For instance, trucks with large items in tow, RVs, and motorcycles with trailers cannot drive in the car pool lane. If you are pulled over for driving in one of these vehicles, you will likely receive a warning rather than a ticket, because this rule is not made clear on the lane signs.
What are the car pool lane violation penalties?
If you drive in the car pool lane with fewer than the minimum number of occupants, you will receive a $124 ticket, and it will go on your driving record for three years. Repeat offenders are subject to higher fines, and can potentially have a license suspension.
If you try to trick officers by placing a mannequin, cut out, or dummy in your passenger seat as a second occupant, you will receive a heftier ticket, and can even face jail time.
Car pool lanes save a lot of drivers time and money, as well as the stress of sitting in traffic every day. Be sure to follow all of the rules of the lanes, and you can start taking advantage of carpooling in Washington.
This article originally appeared on YourMechanic.com as What are the Car Pool Rules in Washington? and was authored by Brady Klopfer.