News: Friday, December 31, 2004

HOV privilege elusive for owners of hybrids
By Lisa Mascaro - Staff Writer

California's hybrid car owners who'd hoped to drive solo in the car-pool lanes come Jan. 1 have to put the brakes on those dreams because of a legislative stalemate in Washington, D.C.

Although Assembly Bill 2628 is set to become law with the new year, it cannot be implemented without approval by Congress, where the measure is stalled indefinitely.

That's confused and frustrated many hybrid enthusiasts who loved the idea of zipping past their gas-guzzling brethren on Los Angeles' notoriously jammed freeways.

"We're getting e-mails from all over the state, from people who either say they own a hybrid or they're thinking about buying one, saying, 'When can we use the HOV lanes?"' said Louise Rishoff, district director for Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, the Woodland Hills Democrat who introduced the legislation.

"We're just waiting for Congress," she said. "The bill acknowledges that this federal approval is a prerequisite to implementation. But (Pavley's) also very confident that it's going to happen."

That's little solace to Los Angeles's hybrid drivers who embraced the perk they get for doing right by the environment.

Hybrids were wildly popular this year in Southern California - the state led sales for the Toyota Prius - and the thought of cruising in the car-pool lanes piqued the interest of many shoppers eyeing the new environmentally friendly technology.

But now, driving solo in the HOV lane will get them only the threat of a $271 fine.

"I am disappointed that it hasn't passed, yeah, of course," said Toyota Prius driver Michael DeDonato, who had been looking forward to taking car-pool lanes when he drove from Westchester to Garden Grove to teach karate classes after work.

"We would all like to be able to drive solo in the car-pool lanes, and I think we deserve to."

Pavley's bill allows hybrid cars that get 45 mpg or better - namely, the Toyota Prius and Honda's Civic and Insight - to travel with solo drivers in the high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

But the law cannot be implemented until Congress signs off; Federal approval is needed because federal funds are provided for car-pool lanes.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, introduced a bill in November that would have allowed the California law to be implemented, but it wasn't acted on before Congress adjourned for the holidays. The bill is expected to be introduced again after the New Year.

Separately, legislation was also included in the federal highway spending bill that had been making its way through Congress, but that also got shelved until the new session.

As soon as federal approval is granted, the state Department of Motor Vehicles will issue decals showing a hybrid qualifies for the car-pool lanes.

Toyota spokeswoman Nancy Hubbell said the carmaker still gets queries from customers asking if they can start driving their hybrids in the car-pool lanes.

"We say, Please don't.

"There are a lot of people out there, especially in L.A., for whom getting a free ride in the car-pool lane is like a get-out-of-jail-free card," she said.

"People were very excited about this. Unfortunately, we need to get federal approval or the federal highway funds are at risk, and I'm sure that's something no one wants to see."

The proposed federal law faces still a tough fight on Capitol Hill, where the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has mounted opposition.

The group says there are new hybrids coming to the market that don't quite achieve the 45 mph fuel-efficiency requirement - from the Ford Escape SUV that debuted this year to the Lexus RX400H coming in 2005 - and the perk shouldn't be limited to only those three cars that do.

"To single out one class of vehicle within the hybrid technology isn't good policy, doesn't make sense," said Eloy Garcia, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents nine car companies including Ford, General Motors and Toyota. "Especially when the automakers are diversifying their hybrids, meeting demands."

Prius driver Andy Lipkis, president of the nonprofit group TreePeople in Los Angeles, got his hybrid in September for the fuel conservation, but called the car-pool lane perk "a lovely extra."

Even though he avoids freeways on his commute to work, he's still troubled about the delay in implementing the legislation.

"That is very frustrating and of great concern to me. Here is the federal government getting in the way of the state and its people trying to do the right thing."

DeDonato moved his karate classes closer to his Westchester home this year so he wouldn't have to endure the horrible commute on the San Diego Freeway, but he hopes the car-pool lanes will get opened to hybrids like his 2001 Prius.

"I am most definitely looking forward to the passage of that bill," said DeDonato, a CFO of a small manufacturing firm. "We hybrid owners feel we are doing something for the environment."

With the new year come several new traffic laws, according to the California Highway Patrol. Among those taking effect Jan. 1:

Child seats in back: All children under 6 or weighing less than 60 pounds must be restrained in the back seat, except where rear seats are unavailable. Previous laws allowed kids to ride in the front seat. (AB 1697, Tom Torlakson, D-Concord).

Lights on when raining: All vehicles must use headlights when the weather requires windshield wipers to be in continuous use. (AB 1854, S. Joseph Simitian, D-Palo Alto).

Speed and racing: Fines increased up to $750 for driving more than 100 mph for the second conviction in three years, and up to $1,000 for each subsequent offense within next five years. (AB 2237, Nicole Parra, D-Bakersfield). Also, punishment for street racing now mandates 40 hours of community service, in addition to previous penalties of jail time and driver's license suspension. (SB 1541, Bob Margett, R-Diamond Bar).

Bus drivers and cell phones: Transit and school bus drivers cannot use wireless phones while driving, except for work-related situations or emergencies. (AB 2785, George Nakano, D-Torrance).

Motorized scooters need licenses: Those driving scooters must have Class C driver's license or instruction permits. Previously, no license was required. (AB 1878, Wilma Chan, D-Oakland).

New gadgets: Devices that allow motorists to change traffic signals are prohibited (AB 340, Dario J. Frommer, D-Glendale). Devices that enhance night vision by illuminating and displaying road hazards are allowed (SB 1236, Kevin Murray, D-Culver City).

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Lisa Mascaro, (818) 713-3761 lisa.mascaro@dailynews.com

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