updated 7/8/2005 3:09:38 PM ET 2005-07-08T19:09:38

Instead of crawling out of bed at 4 a.m. to beat the morning rush, Frank Murphy sleeps late these days. He says he owes it all to his hybrid car — and a law that has some of his fellow commuters upset.

Drivers of the environmentally friendly cars are allowed to cruise solo in Virginia’s car pool lanes, slicing Murphy’s daily two-hour commute in half. And since buying a hybrid 18 months ago, Murphy is leaving his home as much as three hours later.

“The quality of life has gone up tremendously,” he said.

But Murphy’s joy is a source of irritation for his co-worker, Kristine Johnson, who does not own a hybrid. To travel in the car pool lane, she lingers at a commuter lot until two strangers agree to ride with her.

The inconvenience pays off less than it used to: Johnson complains that hybrids are making car pool lanes as congested as regular lanes.

“It’s not fair,” Johnson said. “In the afternoon it’s all hybrids around me. I used to be able to go home in 30 minutes. Now it takes 45.”

Other states watching
So goes the debate between Virginia’s car-poolers and hybrid owners. Lawmakers say the hybrid rule wasn’t meant to clog the car pool lanes, but to encourage people to buy the cars, which run on a low-polluting combination of electricity and gasoline.

Normally, the federal government would withdraw highway money from a state that gave hybrids commuter-lane privileges. But Virginia has a special waiver while Congress considers allowing the states to make their own rules for hybrids. Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia and Florida are poised to move ahead with similar incentives if the Senate passes a long-delayed highway bill.

California Assemblywoman Fran Pavley wrote legislation to open her state’s car pool lanes to single-occupant hybrids. She said the bill contains “numerous safeguards” to avoid replicating Virginia’s woes.

For example, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles would limit the number of hybrids in the commuter lanes by issuing only 75,000 special decals. State transportation officials would review the law periodically, and it would only apply to hybrids that get at least 45 miles per gallon.

Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, argues against linking hybrids with car pool lanes, which he says exist for an unrelated purpose: taking cars off the road.

“It would be sort of like saying you should allow nurses and school teachers to exceed the speed limit because they contribute positive things to society,” Taylor said.

Joe Waldman, general manager of northern Virginia’s Landmark Honda, said officials should not be so quick to blame crowded car pool lanes on hybrids. He noted that solo drivers in regular vehicles continue to violate the rules, despite stepped-up enforcement and a new state law doubling some fines to as much as $1,000 for a fourth offense.

Virginia hybrids tripled in two years
But Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Joan Morris said, “Even if we got rid of all the violators tomorrow, we’d still have a capacity problem.”

In April 2003, about 2,500 hybrid drivers in Virginia registered their cars and asked for “clean fuel” license plates, allowing them to use the car pool lanes, Morris said. By May of this year, the number had more than tripled — to about 9,000.

Meanwhile, Murphy, the Virginia hybrid owner, continues to sleep late, while Virginia transportation officials consider compromises such as letting hybrids use the lanes only at times when traffic is less congested.

Murphy said it would be ridiculous to end the hybrid exemption altogether, but agrees something’s got to give.

“I do have to admit, there are a lot of (hybrids) out there,” he said.

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