OLYMPIA — Drivers who repeatedly sneak into carpool lanes without a carpool may face much heftier fines if caught.
A ticket, which now carries a $136 penalty, would cost $242 under a bill making its way through the state Senate.
If you get nicked a second time, you would pay $499. Get a third and it could cost $755.
And the bill may get tweaked to have an extra amount tacked on for those who put a dummy in the passenger seat in hopes of evading capture.
Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, wrote Senate Bill 5695 to tackle a worsening problem that contributes to slower travel times in lanes reserved for buses and vehicles with multiple occupants.
He got really fired up when he learned violators on I-405 toll lanes can be a factor in pushing tolls higher in the commute.
“I was like seeing red at that point so I said let’s throw the book at them,” he told the Senate Transportation Committee at its Feb. 5 hearing on his bill. “People that are breaking the law are not just making us all a little bit slower. They’re actually making us pay more.”
Congestion is lengthening commutes on highways throughout the region and clogging up many stretches of its designated high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes.
As a result, the carpool lanes are not performing up to state and federal standards which aim to ensure traffic moves at a speed of at least 45 mph, 90 percent of the time during peak commute hours.
In 2017, from Everett to Seattle on I-5, that goal was only met 18 percent of the time southbound for the morning commute and 12 percent northbound for the evening commute, according to a Department of Transportation study presented to lawmakers in January.
The challenge of speeding up traffic is compounded by HOV violators.
Washington State Patrol issued an average of 11,561 tickets a year for violations from 2014 through 2018, according to data compiled in the Judicial Information System.
When troopers conducted a one-week emphasis patrol in central Puget Sound in September, they stopped 1,758 drivers and issued 1,671 citations. They contacted 17 drivers twice and one driver three times.
In the last two years, the state patrol ticketed one person 12 times and another 11. There were 208 people nabbed four times and 50 people ticketed five times.
“Some drivers find it cheaper to pay the ticket than to be late for work,” state patrol Capt. Monica Alexander told lawmakers last week.
One concern raised in that hearing is the difficulty the high fine could pose for a low-income person who may have committed a violation because they were in a hurry to get to a medical appointment or pick up a child.
Liias expressed confidence troopers could discern from a conversation with the driver whether to write a ticket or issue a warning.
Troopers will use discretion, Alexander said.
“We don’t encourage our troopers to write up every person they stop,” she said. “I am sympathetic to low-income families and what this might do to them. But the HOV violation is a choice. We would like to see people that do it correctly rewarded and the people who choose not to do it, we want to give them what they have asked for.”