End of the Free Ride: California Nixes Hybrid Access to Carpool Lanes – For Now

June 30, 2011

If you’re one of the lucky 85,000 California drivers of hybrids with yellow decals permitting access to carpool lanes, the free ride is over – for now. The state officially ends this program June 30 and will replace it with a new sticker program for electric and plug-in cars in the near future.

While the wailing and complaining of frustrated hybrid drivers now joining the crushed masses in the regular freeway lanes is understandable, everyone knew this day was coming. The whole reason California got into the hybrid sticker access to carpool lanes in the first place was to jump-start the push toward vehicles with lower emissions.

Since hybrids currently comprise 425,000 of the Golden State’s nearly 32 million vehicle registrations, that goal has certainly been accomplished.

And it’s not like hybrid owners with those yellow stickers didn’t have a breather. The program had been set to expire at the end of 2010 but lawmakers approved a six-month extension to help ease the transition to cleaner, next-generation plug-in hybrids.

Clean Air Sticker

Clean Air Sticker

But drivers shouldn’t expect to get off with a warning if they're caught still driving in the carpool lane come July 1. Law enforcement isn’t going to be forgiving and will cite offenders for the infraction. That comes with a fine of at least $431.

What’s ahead

All is not bleak for the many California families with one or more hybrids in the household, however.  Come January 1, 2012, California will award 40,000 green bumper decals to owners of “partial zero-emission” plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The new plug-in hybrid that Toyota plans to launch in the U.S. by June 2012 is one such next-generation PZEV, but production has been hampered since the March earthquake and tsunami.

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt doesn’t currently qualify for the green-sticker program, and won’t until it meets stricter California standards, likely later in the 2012 model year.

Tesla Roadster with CA Clean Air Vehicle sticker -- flickr user jurvetson

Tesla Roadster with CA Clean Air Vehicle sticker -- flickr user jurvetson

Enlarge Photo

Choices in the meantime include switching to vehicles powered solely by batteries, or hydrogen or compressed natural gas -- vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Roadster, and Honda Civic GX or Natural Gas model that runs on compressed natural gas.

These vehicles will qualify owners for an existing program of white bumper decals permitting carpool lane access.

Other ways to ease the pain include changing work schedules to avoid rush hour, finding an alternate route, getting in a carpool with someone else going the same way, stocking up on books on tape, hitting up the boss to see if telecommuting one or more days a week is possible, or sticking it out until the new plug-ins arrive.

What about other states allowing decaled-hybrid vehicle access to carpool lanes? Hybrid owners there don’t have to worry for now. Virginia, the first state to allow hybrid vehicle access to carpool lanes, plans to keep its program in effect to the end of June 2012.

As for Arizona, Colorado, New York, Tennessee and Utah, these states plan to continue allowing access as long as traffic keeps flowing smoothly.

Check out more on this issue in GreenCarReports.

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