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HOV Common Questions

  

 

Basic information and operations

Why do some HOV lanes operate 24 hours a day and others do not?
Why do children count as passengers in the HOV lane?
Should I get out of the HOV lane if the vehicle behind me wants to pass?
Can I use an HOV lane to pass a slow vehicle in front of me? 
Can I be in the HOV lane if I’m pulling a trailer?
Can solo drivers in hybrid or other "green" vehicles use HOV lanes?
Can I use the HOV lane when there is an incident in the general purpose lanes?
Why are there double white lines on SR 167?
Why aren't HOV lanes open to all traffic during the evenings, mid-day, and weekends?
Why are HOV lanes being converted into HOT lanes?

Exceptions

Why are motorcycles allowed in the HOV lanes with only one person?
Why are the HOV lanes on SR 520 different from all the other HOV lanes?

Can I ride in the 3+ HOV lane on SR 520 if I’m driving a two-seater with two people?
How do the Reversible Express Lanes work?
Why can solo drivers use the HOV Reversible Express Lanes on I-90 in some places?
What are the large ramps being built in the middle of the freeway?
Why can’t solo drivers use the direct access ramps? 


Why do some HOV lanes operate 24 hours a day and others do not?

In 2002, the State Transportation Commission directed WSDOT to implement an evaluation of all Puget Sound HOV lanes in order to determine if they could be operated any more efficiently. One of the results of this evaluation was to open HOV lanes to all traffic on freeways east of Lake Washington between the hours of 7 pm and 5 am.  This change in operating hours took place in 2003. More information on this evaluation is available on our Eastside HOV Hours of Operation page.

When HOV lanes are open to all traffic, they should be treated like a regular left-side freeway lane.  Left-side freeway lanes are normally reserved for passing.      

Why do children count as passengers in the HOV lane?

The primary enabling legislation for HOV lanes is the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 46.61.165 and RCW 47.52.025.  These RCWs define carpools as "private motor vehicles carrying no fewer [or not less] than a specified number of passengers." Washington Administrative Code 468-510-010 further defines carpools as “private motor vehicles with the number of occupants specified on signs.”

WSDOT has specified the number of passengers or occupants by posting signs along HOV lanes on the freeways. HOVs may therefore include passengers who are not licensed drivers. This includes senior citizens, people with disabilities, and children as well as other people who do not, or can not, obtain a drivers license. It does not include animals.

The words "passengers" and "occupants" were purposely chosen to ensure enforceability by the Washington State Patrol. It can already be challenging to accurately determine how many occupants are in a vehicle. It would be much more difficult and expensive for State Patrol officers to additionally be required to check occupant age or licensing status.

The Federal Highway Administration also states that HOV facilities count children and infants as passengers.   

Should I get out of the HOV lane if the vehicle behind me wants to pass?

There is no law requiring either one to move over in such a situation, and you do not have a legal obligation to move out of the HOV Lane to allow speeding vehicles by. However, the Washington State Patrol suggests that it is usually best for a vehicle in the HOV lane to move over, when safe to do so.  This allows the aggressive driver by and could prevent a road rage incident.

The HOV lane is a separate facility from the rest of the freeway and is not the "fast lane." Since the HOV lane may be the only one moving during congested periods, however, some drivers do consider it to be the fast lane and think they should be moving at the speed limit or faster. It is usually not worth risking a road rage incident by blocking faster-moving cars, even if you are going the speed limit. Use common sense and pull over into the adjacent general purpose lane (not the shoulder) only when it is safe to do so.

It is best to drive in the HOV lane only when you are able to keep up with the flow of traffic. Patrol officers will sometimes pull a legal HOV over to suggest this action if they see that the vehicle is not keeping up with the flow of traffic or has several vehicles queued up behind it. This is usually for educational and safety purposes, although a ticket may be issued if you are impeding "normal and reasonable movement of traffic" in the lane per Revised Code of Washington 46.61.425 

Can I use an HOV lane to pass a slow vehicle in front of me?

No, not unless you have the required number of people in the car. Violation of this rule is a moving vehicle infraction and comes with a fine of $124. 

Can I be in the HOV lane if I’m pulling a trailer?

Yes, as long as the combined gross weight of both the vehicle and trailer is 10,000 pounds or less, and you are able to keep up with the flow of traffic. A ticket may be issued if you are impeding "normal and reasonable movement of traffic" in the lane (RCW 46.61.425). 

The 10,000 pound weight limit does not apply to recreational vehicles. 

Can solo drivers in hybrid or other "green" vehicles use HOV lanes?

No. The Federal Highway Administration does allow inherently low emission vehicles (ILEVs) - which include hybrids - into HOV lanes without the required number of people, but such permission is up to individual states based upon preservation of good operating conditions in the HOV lanes.

Right now most of our HOV lanes are already full during the busiest commuting periods. The technology for hybrids and other green vehicles is changing at a rapid pace, and it is likely that many vehicles will soon fall into the ILEV category. Our HOV lanes could quickly follow the fate of Virginia's HOV lanes and become even more crowded. The HOV system greatly increases freeway efficiency and must be kept moving. We are therefore unable to offer this incentive for hybrid and other green vehicle owners.

WSDOT appreciates every citizen who steps up to the plate to do their share by purchasing a more environment-friendly vehicle. This is an important action and helps the state achieve Governor Gregoire’s greenhouse emission reduction goals. The HOV system does much to help the environment. Hybrids and other green vehicles help the environment as well, but do not help congestion when they are single occupant. They are of course allowed to use the HOV lanes when carrying the required number of occupants.    

Can I use the HOV lane when there is an incident in the general purpose lanes?


No, you cannot take it upon yourself to use the HOV lane as a single occupant vehicle (SOV) during an incident.  Whether or not to open up the HOV lanes due to an accident or some other type of blockage is a decision made between the Washington State Patrol (WSP) commanding officer at the scene and WSDOT in Central Traffic Management.  They have the authority to - and often do - open the HOV lanes to all traffic.  The decision is based on many factors and they will flag vehicles into the lane if that decision is made.   


Why are there double white lines on SR 167?

The double white line separates the HOT lane from the general purpose lanes.  It is illegal to cross the double white lines and enter or exit the HOT lane.  You may only do this at specific locations marked by a dashed line.  Restricting access to zones marked by a dashed line reduces sudden braking caused by vehicles changing lanes and enables the HOT lane to flow smoothly with little or no traffic congestion virtually all the time.  While it has long been illegal to cross a double white line, most Washington drivers seldom encountered them before the completion of more recent projects, such as SR 167 HOT lanes and two-way transit/HOV lanes on I-90 between Seattle and Bellevue.  WSDOT chose to restrict HOT lane access with a double white line at all times (even when the HOT lanes are open to all) to reduce any confusion from a traffic law that might be unfamiliar to many drivers.   

Why aren't HOV lanes open to all traffic during the evenings, mid-day, and weekends?

Evenings. A study performed in 2002 showed that opening the HOV lanes to all traffic during the evening hours might provide some benefits to solo drivers without negatively impacting HOV or general freeway traffic on the east side of Lake Washington. In 2003, eastside freeway HOV lanes were opened to all traffic between the hours of 7 pm and 5 am. (Eastside direct access ramps remain HOV-only, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.) The Federal Highway Administration required WSDOT to make $1.2 million of safety improvements to eastside HOV lanes before they were opened at night.

This change in hours of operation included all existing HOV lanes on I-405 and to the east of I-405, including SR 167 and portions of SR 520 and I-90. It did not include I-5, or the portions of SR 520 and I-90 that lay west of I-405, for the following reasons:

  • On I-5, making the required safety improvements to open HOV lanes to all traffic would have cost in excess of $50 million.
  • On SR 520, the HOV lanes cannot hold higher volumes due to safety reasons.
  • On I-90, the HOV lanes between Mercer Island and Seattle are already open to solo drivers.

Mid-Day. Since eastside freeway HOV lanes have already received the required safety improvements to be open to all traffic at night, it is fair to ask why these lanes are still restricted to HOV drivers during the mid-day. Although HOV traffic volumes are usually lower during the mid-day than during the peak commuting periods, they are still high enough to cause operational and safety concerns in several locations if they were opened to all traffic.

Weekends. The HOV lanes tend to be as full, or fuller, than the other freeway lanes on the weekends, so opening the lanes on the weekends would not help with congestion in the general purpose lanes.

Why are HOV lanes being converted into HOT lanes?

HOV lanes can become inefficient if they are too congested. Likewise, HOV lanes with low volumes are not being used as efficiently as possible. To ensure optimum efficiency, WSDOT is looking at conversion of HOV lanes to high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes or express toll lanes.

In under-utilized HOV lanes (such as SR 167), HOT lanes allow single occupant vehicles to drive in the lane for a toll when there is room. All HOVs continue to use the lanes for free.

In over-utilized HOV lanes, occupancy requirements for carpools may need to be raised. Volumes can then be controlled by the toll price. The price will vary depending upon how much space is available. The less space, the higher the toll. In this way, the optimum number of vehicles can be allowed in the lane.

Our first HOT lane pilot project opened on SR 167 in May 2008. More conversions of HOV to HOT lanes or express toll lanes may be coming, and may involve changing the definition of HOV lanes.

Why are motorcycles allowed in the HOV lanes with only one person?

The allowance originates with a federal mandate having to do with safety and following distance. The reasoning is that it is safer to keep two-wheeled vehicles moving than to have them in stop-and-go traffic conditions.   

Why are the HOV lanes on SR 520 different from all the other HOV lanes?

The HOV lanes on SR 520 are different from the rest of the HOV system in two ways. They are on the outside, or right side of the freeway, rather than on the left side of the general purpose lanes like other HOV lanes. Secondly, the lane west of I-405 requires at least three people, whereas the rest of the HOV system only requires two people.

The westbound SR 520 HOV lane that goes from I-405 to the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge is one of the oldest HOV lanes in the area. It was opened in 1973 as a transit-only lane to allow buses to bypass toll booths which operated on the bridge at the time. The lane was created by re-striping the right-side freeway shoulder as a transit lane. This converted shoulder cannot safely carry the high volumes that other HOV lanes can. In order to limit the number of vehicles in the lane, and to lessen the bottleneck when the roadway narrows to two lanes at the bridge, the HOV lane has been given a 3+ occupancy requirement. Note that even with three or more persons required, this HOV lane experiences congestion during evening rush hours.

The SR 520 eastbound and westbound HOV lanes east of I-405 were built more recently and can handle higher volumes. They therefore have a 2+ occupancy requirement. These lanes were also placed on the outside, or right side of the general purpose lanes, in order to match the existing HOV lane.

The Eastside Transit and HOV Project will provide an eastbound HOV lane on SR 520 from the east end of the bridge (in Medina) to I-405.  It will also shift HOV lanes on SR 520 to the inside (left-most) lane. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2010. Occupancy requirements for HOV lanes on SR 520 will be determined at the time, depending upon traffic volumes, available funding for the new SR 520 bridge, and other system requirements. 

Can I ride in the 3+ HOV lane on SR 520 if I’m driving a two-seater with two people?

No. Even though your vehicle can hold only two riders and is technically full, you may not use the HOV lane on SR 520 between I-405 and the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge with only two people in the car. This lane is restricted to 3+ riders for safety reasons. 

How do the Reversible Express Lanes work?


I-5

The Reversible Express Lane roadway on I-5 is a separate facility that was built in the freeway median between Northgate and downtown Seattle. It does not connect to either SR 520 or I-90. This facility has limited entrance and exit points, and operates in only one direction at a time. Ramps are located in the Northgate area, at SR 522/Lake City Way, Ravenna/NE 65th, the University District, and in downtown Seattle at Mercer, Stewart/Howell, Pike/Pine, and Columbia/Cherry Streets. See the I-5 Express Lane Map for exact ramp locations and more detail.

HOV lanes do not continue on the mainline where there are Reversible Express Lanes. At the time of design it was thought that Reversible Express Lanes would serve the HOV needs of the area between Northgate and downtown Seattle. HOV needs for this area are now being re-examined.

Most of the lanes in the I-5 Reversible Express Lanes are general purpose, meaning they are for all vehicles. There are a few short HOV lanes in these locations:

  • In the southbound direction, the left-most (east side) lane is designated HOV from approximately Roanoke Street until it ends in the off-ramp to 5th Avenue and Columbia Street.
  • In the southbound direction, the center right lane is an HOV lane from the Mercer Street off-ramp until it ends in the off-ramp to Pike and Pine streets.
  • In the northbound direction, the left-most (west side) lane becomes HOV at the off-ramp to SR 522 and Lake City Way and continues northward.
  • Several HOV-only on/off ramps serve the Reversible Express Lanes at Northgate, Ravenna Boulevard/NE 65th Street and downtown Seattle at Pike and Pine streets and 5th Avenue and Columbia Street.
  • In the northbound direction, the left-most (west side) lane becomes HOV at the off-ramp to SR 522/Bothell/Lake City Way and continues northward.
  • Several HOV-only on/off ramps serve the Reversible Express Lanes at Northgate, Ravenna/NE 65th, and downtown Seattle at Pike/Pine Streets and Cherry/Columbia Streets. 
  • The I-5 Reversible Express Lanes are different from HOV lanes on the rest of the system in that they are separated from the general purpose lanes by a barrier, can only be accessed at certain points, and operate in only one direction at a time. All I-5 Reversible Express Lanes (including the HOV segments) typically operate southbound during the morning, northbound during the afternoon and evening, and are closed at night. This schedule is the same for weekdays, weekends, and holidays, although it is sometimes adjusted for special events. See the I-5 Express Lanes page for a map and more detail.   
I-90

The Reversible Express Lanes in the center roadway on I-90 are a separate facility that was built between the westbound and eastbound mainline from downtown Seattle to south Bellevue. They do connect to both I-5 and I-405. The lanes do not connect directly with HOV lanes on I-5, but do directly connect with I-405 HOV lanes.

This facility has limited entrance and exit points, and operates in only one direction at a time. Ramps are located in downtown Seattle (at the intersection of Airport Way S/S Dearborn Street/5th Ave S), at Rainier Avenue S, on Mercer Island (at 77th Ave SE and at 80th Ave SE/Island Crest Way), and in South Bellevue at Bellevue Way SE. See the I-90 Express Lane Map for exact ramp locations and more detail.

I-90 has one “normal” segment of HOV lane east of Bellevue. It goes from south Bellevue to Mercer Island, on the left side of the westbound mainline on the outer roadway. This segment operates 24/7 and is accessible from I-405, from westbound I-90, and from southbound Bellevue Way SE. Click here for more information about operations in this area. 

The rest of the HOV lanes between Bellevue and Seattle are located in the Reversible Express Lanes in the center roadway. The I-90 Reversible Express Lanes are different from HOV lanes on the rest of the system in that they are separated from the general purpose lanes by a barrier, can only be accessed at certain points, and operate in only one direction at a time.

All of the lanes in the I-90 Reversible Express Lanes are designated HOV. However, single occupant vehicles are allowed in the I-90 HOV Reversible Express Lanes in both directions between Rainier Avenue S (Exit #3 in Seattle) and Island Crest Way (Exit #7 on Mercer Island). There are also several HOV-only on/off ramps serving the Reversible Express Lanes between these two exits which solo drivers can use. Note that solo drivers cannot use the westbound outer roadway "normal" HOV lane between Bellevue and Mercer Island, the new HOV direct access off-ramp from the outer roadway to 80th Avenue SE, or the HOV direct access on-ramp from southbound Bellevue Way SE to the outer roadway.  Nor can solo drivers use the I-90 HOV Reversible Express Lanes east of Island Crest Way or west of Rainier Avenue S.

The I-90 Reversible Express Lanes typically operate westbound from 1 am – 12:30 pm, and eastbound from 2 pm until midnight. On weekends they typically operate eastbound-only from 2 pm Friday until midnight on Sunday. This schedule can be adjusted for special events. See the I-90 Express Lanes page for a map and more detail. 

Why can solo vehicles use the HOV Reversible Express Lanes on I-90 in some places?

Single occupant vehicles traveling between Seattle and Mercer Island are allowed to use the I-90 HOV Reversible Express Lanes. Solo drivers may use the lanes between Rainier Avenue S and Island Crest Way (Exits #3 and #7) in the center roadway in both directions. Solo drivers cannot use the HOV Reversible Express Lanes east of Island Crest Way on Mercer Island or west of Rainier Avenue S.  They also cannot use the new HOV segment between south Bellevue and Mercer Island on the westbound mainline outer roadway, nor the direct access ramps serving it.      

The allowance of single occupant vehicles on certain parts of the I-90 HOV Reversible Express Lanes stems from a 1976 Memorandum of Agreement which identified how I-90 would be operated. The memorandum recognized that the Reversible Express Lanes might someday become overloaded and therefore established a hierarchy of users. It identified buses as having the highest priority, followed by other HOVs, and then vehicles going to and from Mercer Island. The signees to this memorandum were Seattle, Bellevue, Mercer Island, and WSDOT. The I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV Operations project currently underway will determine any changes made to this policy.  

What are the large ramps being built in the middle of the freeway?

Direct access ramps allow buses, carpools, vanpools, and motorcycles to directly access the HOV lanes in the center of the freeway. They come down from above the mainline (or up from below) and merge into the HOV lane from the middle of the freeway. By enabling HOVs to connect directly with HOV lanes, vehicles avoid the need to weave across the freeway. Direct access ramps have improved safety, shortened travel times, improved travel time reliability, and created smoother driving conditions for all freeway users.    

Why can’t solo drivers use the direct access ramps?

The main reasons for the construction of direct access ramps are to improve safety, reduce congestion, save time, and increase travel time reliability for both HOVs and general purpose traffic. This is part of the voter-approved Sound Transit program to improve regional mobility for transit and HOV users.

It is not possible for WSDOT to allow non-HOV traffic on the direct access ramps at any time. The restrictions on these ramps are not arbitrary. Under the Agreement for Operation and Use of Sound Transit Funded HOV and Direct Access Facilities Memorandums of Understanding (1997 and 2005), Sound Transit contributed a substantial amount of money towards the construction of HOV direct access facilities in exchange for the right to build them on WSDOT property. In return, WSDOT agreed to specified terms of use, which limit direct access ramps to HOV-only use.  

Wouldn't it help congestion if HOV lanes were open to all traffic?

Studies show that many people who aren’t usually on the regular freeway lanes during rush hours would switch to driving alone if HOV lanes were no longer reserved for HOVs --including many of the people who are currently busing, carpooling, and vanpooling. This would quickly result in another clogged lane.

An example of this was the HOV pilot project in Vancouver, WA. An HOV lane operated on southbound I-5 from 2001 until 2005 during the morning commute. Although the project met most of its performance goals, other circumstances resulted in a recommendation by the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council to end the pilot. Reasons for ending the project included insufficient park-and-ride facilities, cutbacks on transit service coupled with an increase in fares, and a lack of connecting HOV lanes into Portland.   

Travel time through this corridor has not improved since the HOV lanes were opened to general traffic.