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Reconsidering Hybrids in the Carpool Lane


If record gas prices aren't enough, drivers in California now have another reason to buy fuel-efficient hybrid cars. Starting this month, hybrid owners can use the carpool lane on crowded California freeways, even if they're driving solo, but NPR's Scott Horsley reports not all hybrids qualify for this privilege.

Mr. GARY LEE (KPBS): Brake lights on the northbound 5, the usual slow in the right now from the merge. I'm Gary Lee for KPBS.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

It's rush hour in San Diego, and I'm rushing along at about 60 miles an hour until I approach the intersection of Interstates 5 and 805, a notorious bottleneck known locally as the merge. Eight lanes turn into five lanes, and my speed drops--50 miles an hour, 40 miles an hour, brake lights in front of me, and pretty soon down to about 20. But just a couple of lanes over in the carpool lane, drivers are still zipping along. State lawmaker Fran Pavley sponsored a bill last year that allows hybrid owners to use the carpool lane, even if they're by themselves, and when President Bush signed the transportation bill last week, Pavley's provision went into effect.

Assemblywoman FRAN PAVLEY (California): Somehow all the hybrid owners in the world have found out that this law has passed, and I assume there's long lines at the DMV.

HORSLEY: In order to use the carpool lane, hybrid owners have to get a special decal from the DMV. One of the first to apply was Sev MacPete, who heads the Prius Club of San Diego. It wasn't hard to find the club's regular meeting, 20 shiny Toyota Priuses all lined up near the city's main park. MacPete says using the carpool lane will be a welcome benefit but not a huge change.

Mr. SEV MacPETE (Prius Club of San Diego): Most of the time we do have two people in the car. So we already use the carpool lanes, but I would say maybe, you know, once or twice a month, you know, I drive from here to LA, and that would be great.

HORSLEY: Not all hybrids are eligible for the carpool lane. To qualify, they have to get at least 45 miles to the gallon and produce only very limited pollution. The Prius, the Honda Civic hybrid and the Honda Insight are in. Bigger, less efficient hybrids, like the Ford Escape and Toyota Highlander, are out. MacPete says that's the way it should be.

Mr. MacPETE: It was sort of like if you're looking at a school thing, you reward people that get A's. You don't reward people with C's. The Ford Escape and the Toyota Highlander and Lexus are not A's.

HORSLEY: The Ford Motor Company disagrees. While the Escape hybrid doesn't get 45 miles to the gallon, it does get 50 percent better gas mileage than a standard Escape, and that's the test in the new federal highway bill crafted by Missouri Senator Jim Talent who has an Escape plant in his home state. Ford spokesman Mike Moran is confident the federal standard will trump California's more restrictive measure.

Mr. MIKE MORAN (Spokesman, Ford Motor Company): Once you apply the standards there, you'll find hybrids that meet those standards will be allowed access, and I would expect that'll probably be the case in California and in other states.

HORSLEY: The US Department of Transportation says the issue is still under review. The 57,000 hybrids on the road in California are a tiny fraction of the state's 29 million vehicles, but if they all started using the carpool lane, it could get pretty crowded. That's happened in Virginia, where hybrids have been using the lanes for years, and there's now pressure to boot them out.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

STAMBERG: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.