Drivers, slowing down to save Energy, are accused of clogging carpool lanes
By Gary Richards - Mercury News - Tue, Mar. 07, 2006
Giant-size sport-utility vehicles have enraged motorists for nearly two decades because of their size, gas consumption and sometimes bully drivers.
Now there's another class of vehicles drawing anger on the freeway: sleek, fuel-efficient hybrids.
Call it Prius envy.
It's not just about the carpool perk, which allows drivers in hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic to go solo in the diamond lane. It's not just about getting 50 miles a gallon or the possible $3,000 tax break. Or about the trendiness of owning the hottest seller on the sales lot.
It's about speed -- the lack of it.
"These idiot hybrids are clogging up the carpool lane,'' huffed Bob De Marco of Gilroy, blaming drivers for cruising in the fast lane at less than 65 mph when others want to zoom along at 75-plus.
The speed at which hybrids cruise "is infuriating,'' said Andy Francke of Morgan Hill.
There's a good reason Prius owners may be tempted to ease off the pedal. They see the impact their speed has on the gas tank. When Jim Feichtl sped along at 75 mph to 80 mph in his hybrid, the trip-o-meter on the dash that gauges his gas mileage up to the second told him he was getting between 35 and 39 miles a gallon. When he dropped to under 65 mph, he got 46 mpg.
When Paul Burnett of Alameda went 55 mph in his Prius on his Interstate 880 commute, he got better than 56 miles a gallon.
The proof was right on the dashboard, right in front of their eyes.
With $3 a gallon gas a not-too-distant memory -- and eco-friendliness a shared goal -- better mileage means significant savings every month.
"Many hybrid owners realize how sharply fuel efficiency goes down over 55 mph because they get instant mileage feedback,'' Felix Kramer, a hybrid advocate, said.
Bob Whitehair of San Mateo owns both a 2004 Prius and a 1999 VW Passat turbo. Different cars, far different reaction from drivers.
"I drive both cars in the same method, following the speed limit and generally staying in the right lanes to let faster drivers go around,'' said Whitehair, 59. "When I drive the hybrid, SUVs tend to ride my bumper and flash headlights, regardless of the lane I am in.
"When I drive the non-hybrid in the same manner, they merely dart in and out of lanes to go around me.''
Jim Thomas of the National Motorists Association has noticed the bad vibes not only in the carpool lanes but also in the regular lanes.
"Many motorists perceive drivers of hybrids as arrogant, trendy, greener-than-thou types who tend to flout their environmental consciousness as they proudly display the stickers on their cars,'' said Thomas, the Bay Area representative of the motorists advocacy group. "It's not surprising that the hybrid drivers are generating animosity because they are slowing'' other drivers down.
To be fair, drivers who clog up the fast lane in any car or SUV have long been the subject of a raging road debate. The Highway Patrol recommends that even at the 65 mph speed limit, drivers should move over a lane if they safely can when faster traffic approaches from behind.
And, of course, the 65 mph speed limit is flouted regularly on every highway in the region. Some joke that Highway 85 is named for the actual speed limit on that freeway.
The speed that is appropriate in the carpool lane can vary, Highway Patrol officers said. If traffic in the solo lanes is creeping along at 30 mph, going 55 may be way too fast. But some carpool drivers will tailgate slower traffic driving prudently, pushing them to go faster or move over.
If Neil Newman of Saratoga is leading the fast-lane pack at 65 mph in his Honda Civic hybrid and there "are annoyed SUVs behind me, then too bad,'' he said.
"Ironically, many times it is from someone who is a single driver, going way over the speed limit, and more often than not, driving a truck or an SUV,'' said hybrid driver Lynn Ragghianti of Union City. "It is as if they resent the fact that I am not out there guzzling gas and polluting, or they take it as a personal affront, though who knows what their real reasons are.''
The CHP says it has not recorded any hybrid road rage incidents. But the debate may not cool. Although Consumer Reports magazine said hybrids will end up costing owners from $3,700 to $13,300 more over five years compared with similar models using just gasoline, Toyota representatives predict that its hybrid sales will increase 50 percent this year. In a couple of months, the company will introduce its hybrid Camry.
It takes 18 to 22 weeks to acquire a Prius, up from eight weeks at Christmas.
The debate may spread as more hybrids move into the far left lane. California could allow another 25,000 hybrids into the carpool lane by this summer.
Virginia is poised to extend its carpool perk, and three other states allow solo drivers in hybrids to use their diamond lanes. Several others may copy them.
Gas prices remain high, up nearly 37 cents a gallon over the prices of a year ago. The $3 a gallon mark may be reached again, which probably will spur more hybrid sales.
What is a law-abiding hybrid driver to do? How can you make that tailgater who thinks 65 is far too slow during commute hours to back off?
"Slower traffic should move to the right, carpool lane or no carpool lane,'' said motorist Paul Smith of Los Gatos. "Plugging up the fast lane tempts people to be ruder than they normally are.''