High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes are specialized lanes set aside in multiple lane freeways for the use of buses, vans, and carpools. They are common in many areas with congested freeways, and act to increase transit efficiency and to reward people who carpool or use public transportation. Some critics believe that HOV lanes contribute to traffic congestion, but studies suggest that opening HOV lanes to general use would actually increase congestion. With congestion growing in many major areas along with rising fuel costs, HOV lanes are generally viewed as an excellent idea.
A number of names are used to refer to a HOV lane, depending on the location. Many states designate it as a “carpool lane,” or even more commonly as a “diamond lane,” in reference to the white diamonds used to mark HOV lanes in many areas. In all cases, the lane is clearly separated from traffic, typically with the use of a solid white line, and sometimes with a divider as well. In some regions, HOV lanes are even elevated above the regular traffic, or routed around areas of particularly infamous congestion.
The laws about who may drive in a HOV lane vary. Typically, a carpool must have two or more people. Buses are always permitted, along with carpool vans. In some areas, people driving hybrid cars or cars using alternative fuels are also allowed to use the HOV lanes, as long as they attach special stickers to their cars. HOV lanes are supposed to be enforced by traffic police, but police are often busy with speeding violations and other traffic issues. As a result, many commuters use HOV lanes illegally, despite the substantial fee which usually accompanies violations.
Generally, HOV lanes are only designated during set hours. Outside these peak commute times, anyone may use the HOV lane. By restricting traffic during peak commute, traffic engineers can ensure that buses will remain on schedule, even when they have to deal with congested freeways. Traffic engineers also believe that HOV lanes are a model of efficiency, as they carry more people per vehicle than other lanes. Thus, even though a HOV lane may look spread out, more people are actually traveling on it per mile than in other lanes. In addition, a HOV lane is substantially safer to drive in, as a larger following distance is usually left between vehicles.
In cities with serious traffic problems, citizens are encouraged to carpool and use public transit. Some enterprising areas have even launched ad campaigns which reference the ability to drive in the HOV lane for carpoolers and buses. Often, the public transit authority for a region has a website which also includes information about local carpools, so that commuters can hook up with rides around the region.