Northbound Highway 101 as seen at 4 p.m. Wednesday from the pedestrian bridge just
south of Highway 12. Road Warrior photo.

How many people are driving illegally in the car pool lanes on Highway 101?

Way too many. In 2009, the CHP gave out 1,667 tickets to suspected car-pool violators, up from 2008’s count of 1,458. And that’s just the ones who got caught. And it was before the car-pool lanes were between Santa Rosa and Windsor.

An unofficial check this week by the Road Warrior indicates the number of violators isn’t going down.

From 3:40 to 3:50 p.m. Tuesday, 83 cars/pickups/buses used the northbound car-pool lane as they passed under the pedestrian bridge just south of Highway 12 and 16 were violators. In the next 10 minutes, from 3:50 to 4 p.m., 103 cars/pickups/buses used the southbound car-pool lane and six were violators.

If that rate held consistent throughout the afternoon car-pool hours of 3 to 6:30 p.m., there would have been more than 460 violators at that spot — more than one-fourth of the violators ticketed in all of 2009 by the CHP.

Our tally erred on the side of giving drivers the benefit of the doubt. We only counted someone as a violator if it was clear the car had just the driver. Minivans, for example, were considered legal because we couldn’t see all the backseats. And hybrids were counted as legal even if we weren’t sure they had the DMV sticker allowing car-pool use, although three northbound hybrids were driver only and two southbound.

CHP Officer Jon Sloat said enforcement of the car-pool lanes is not one of the CHP’s top priorities. He said that in previous years when federal grant money was available, the CHP used it to put extra officers on the highway to enforce the law, but that hasn’t happened in the past year.

He said most violators who get tickets are those who took a chance and jumped into the car-pool lane with the hope of passing slow traffic but got caught by an officer they hadn’t notice.

Sometimes it can be hard for officers to be sure there’s just the driver in the car. Sloat said he’s pulled drivers over with the intention of giving them a car-pool ticket only to discover a small child in the backseat that he didn’t see.

If you get a ticket, the base fine is $100. But with all of the fees piled on by the state and county, the actual cost is $480.