Carpool Lane

My Nissan Leaf, Hal, is waiting for his white HOV Lane stickers to arrive in the mail. He is not happy with the wait. You see, one of the upsides to electric car ownership is that California has discontinued HOV Lane access for several regular hybrid cars beginning July 1, 2011. The cars being asked to leave are the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid (which I also own) and Honda Insight.

After July, The Nissan Leaf, Tesla Roadster and Honda Civic CNG (natural gas) cars will be the only solo drivers allowed in the nearly 1400 miles of California carpool lanes. When January of 2012 begins, some plug-in hybrids will get their own green stickers and can join the party (the only one pre-approved is the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, but the Chevrolet Volt is also expected to qualify by then).

Other states including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia, have HOV sticker programs as well – but California leads the way with its sheer number of cars and miles of highway.

To live in the greater Los Angeles area is to accept the pain of commuting short distances in a long period of time. If you spend too much time thinking about the distance you're traveling vs. 'as the crow flies,' your road rage could rise to uncontrollable levels. It's healthiest to have a "we're all in this together" frame of mind.

From the L.A. perspective, I live to the south, behind the Orange curtain in Orange County. The rest of the country may think of it as a beige, overly-landscaped world where the Housewives are desperate, the children are spoiled and the shopping malls are retail shrines, but we do have an advantage over L.A. in available parking, property size and HOV lanes on nearly every major highway. As we refer to them – the 22, the 55, the 405, the 605, the 91 and much of the 5 – each have HOV Diamond Lanes.

Before owning the Leaf, the last car I purchased was 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid. It qualified for HOV lane stickers then, which was a major purchase incentive. This allowed me to become one of the 85,000 single carpoolers in the HOV lane who are resented and lamented by the lone drivers sitting in the regular lanes – giving them one more reason to curse Southern California and its congested thoroughfares. And, I must admit, I have enjoyed every minute of it. In fact, I have come to depend on it.

My purchase of the Nissan Leaf was also influenced greatly by this privilege, especially after hearing that my single carpooling would end July 1. But this was the original idea the lawmakers had in creating the stickers in the first place – to spur the sale of advanced technology, thus improving air quality.

So, how many and which cars will join this new, tighter diamond club? John Swanton, an air pollution specialist and spokesperson for the California Air Resources Board (CARB), told AutoTrader that there would be no ceiling on the amount of white HOV lane stickers given to qualified electric cars in California, and that the program ends in 2015. He said that the ceiling for the green stickers for qualified plug-in cars will be 40,000 and that they "expect a great deal more of these types of cars applying for the program." As for how many electric cars exist in California to date – spokesperson for the California DMV, Jan Mendoza said there are 97,421 registered electric vehicles, but that includes golf carts and many electric cars that do not qualify for the stickers.

So from July 1st through December 31st of this year – I'll have six months of near exclusivity before the plug-ins join the party. The trade off for me is that driving to Los Angeles in the HOV lanes will only make sense if there is a charging station I can find in the city that is convenient to where I'm going. So, when you see me (and Hal) zipping past you on your left, please don't disparage us. Remember, we can't necessarily get back home without the kindness and availability of charging stations. So my gloating will be kept at a minimum.


Want to learn more about living with an electric vehicle? Follow our long-term test of the 2011 Nissan Leaf.

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Joni Gray is a long-standing member of the automotive industry and has worked on both the corporate and publishing sides of the business. Over the past 20 years, she has managed advertising and marketing programs at Mazda, Hyundai and Honda and has been an editor at both Kelley Blue Book and the Los Angeles Times.

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