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Originally published August 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 19, 2007 at 12:53 PM

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Dummies in the carpool lane: Cheating heats up in summer gridlock

Fed up with backups and endless brake lights, some drivers are zipping through the HOV lane with a secret: That person in their passenger...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Fed up with backups and endless brake lights, some drivers are zipping through the HOV lane with a secret: That person in their passenger seat isn't actually breathing.

Last week Trooper Tony Brock pulled over a Black Diamond man for cruising in the Highway 167 carpool lane with a dolled-up mannequin as his fellow rider.

It wasn't the first time Brock had seen drivers resorting to creative schemes to bypass rush-hour gridlock.

"You name it, I've seen it," said Brock, who encounters drivers trying to circumvent the HOV-lane rules several times a week.

Carpool cheaters tend to get more brazen — and imaginative — when the traffic gets worse and the weather heats up, said Washington State Patrol spokesman Jeff Merrill.

A stuffed sweatshirt topped with a low-tipping ballpark cap is not an uncommon tactic for drivers seeking an instant passenger. Some are meticulous about strapping the clothes into a seatbelt, just in case.

Empty car-seats covered in blankets are standard ruses, although the particularly crafty sometimes place a plastic baby doll inside.

Brock commonly pulls over pregnant women driving in the HOV lanes, who argue that being with child should count as a second passenger.

It doesn't, said Brock. And neither do hearse drivers ("You have to have a pulse"). Or pet dogs.

In King County, the patrol gets more complaints about carpool-lane violations than about any other violations. The State Patrol averages about 2,200 complaints about HOV-lane cheaters in the county each month, and it only gets worse in the summer, said Merrill — in June there were 3,839 complaints.

The patrol issued 1,252 tickets for HOV violators in June. At the start of July, the fine for being a solo driver in the diamond lane went up $23 to $124 a pop.

The areas where King County HOV-lane impostors feel the need to cheat most are westbound on Interstate 90 in Issaquah, the southbound Interstate 5 express lanes, Highway 167 in Kent, westbound Highway 520, and southbound at Interstate 405 in both Bellevue and Bothell.

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Merrill has to give these folks a nod for creativity. "These guys are really thinking," he said.

One notorious instance of a dummy in the carpool lane was in March 2002, when a Kent woman used a life-sized mannequin — topped with a wig and wearing makeup — to dart into the HOV lane on I-405. She cut off a bus and set off a chain of collisions involving eight vehicles.

She admitted to sometimes letting the dummy ride shotgun when traffic got clogged.

Heidi Herman of Phinney Ridge, who has been unsuccessful in finding a carpool buddy, is fed up with sitting in traffic during her commute while HOV cheaters go flying past the "suckers" in the regular lanes.

"It's really frustrating because I'm trying to play by the rules," she said.

Herman has wanted to report violators, but she can't jot down license plate numbers fast enough.

Nabbing carpool cheaters can be difficult for troopers too, Merrill said. Troopers who do get a good look inside a speeding car often don't have enough time to verify if that passenger is made of flesh or plastic.

"Many times those people slide right on by," he said.

Drivers who spot violators, and their dummies, can call into the patrol's hotline: 206-764-HERO.

Christina Siderius: csiderius@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published August 1, 2007, was corrected August 1, 2007. In an online version of this story, it was incorrectly stated that the fine for HOV violators went up $14 to $124 in July. It went up by $23.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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