Friday, August 12, 2005
By TAMARA CHUANG The Orange County Register
Now that some hybrid car owners can drive solo in the state's HOV lanes, the 75,000 permits available are bound to sell out fast.
The program, implemented Wednesday, is meant to be an incentive for California residents to switch to low-emission vehicles, such as the ToyotaPrius, one of three hybrid cars approved for driving solo in the car-pool lanes.
The car-pool incentive is definitely a deciding factor, said Dianne Whitmire, the fleet/Internet sales director at Carson Toyota. Thursday was insane at the dealership, which sold out of the six Priuses in stock plus two still in freight status. Of 11 more still on the way, half were sold by 5 p.m. The previous day, Carson Toyota sold one Prius.
"It's interesting to see the different people coming out of the woodwork. There's a different focus. It's not necessarily on mileage or environment or insurance but time," Whitmire said.
Hybrid cars, which use gasoline and batteries to operate, have lower emissions to cut down on pollution. The car-pool-lane program, which runs until 2007, is limited to cars that get at least 45 miles per gallon and meet the state's emission standards. Currently, the program allows three hybrid cars – the Prius and the HondaInsight and Honda Civic – plus about three dozen other alternative-fuel vehicles.
But not everyone believes this latest enticement will create a mad rush at hybrid car dealerships.
"I think that given the price of gas, in some cases spending half as much on gas is a much bigger incentive for people," said Dan Kalb, California policy coordinator for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a national environmental research organization.
"We hope it doesn't discourage people who car pool. People who buy hybrids tend to be more environmentally inclined. Now, they can ride in the car-pool lane by themselves. Does that mean there are going to be three drivers on the road when there was only going to be one? I have no idea," Kalb said.
Some 7,000 electric or other clean vehicles are already enrolled in the car-pool program. The first 75,000 hybrid owners who apply to the state Department of Motor Vehicles and pay $8 will get a decal. Details are at www.dmv.ca.gov/forms/reg/reg1000.htm.
By Thursday afternoon, the Van Nuys DMV had about 15 people stop by to pick up the application, said Armando Botello, information officer for the DMV. Because drivers must apply for the decals through the mail, the DMV doesn't have a count of interested drivers. However, more than 57,000 hybrid vehicles are registered with the California DMV.
Orange County's 200 miles of car-pool lanes are already heavily used but can support an onslaught of hybrids, said Ted Nguyen, public communications manager with Orange County Transportation Authority.
According to a recent OCTA report, 1,568 vehicles drive in the county's car-pool lanes in any given hour. Comparably, Los Angeles has around 1,000, and the San Francisco area has 930.
"We do have capacity to accommodate that growth," Nguyen said.
Although the program is open to any vehicle that meets the minimum requirements, other hybrids don't qualify, including Ford's hybrid Escape because it only gets 35 miles per gallon.
"You can get 30 miles to the gallon with an SUV. That's great. Unfortunately, for the people who buy those cars, the government put a limit of 45 miles per gallon (for the car-pool perk)," said Brian Chee, managing editor of Irvine's Autobytel.com, an automobile information and comparison site.
If the issue is cutting down on emissions, that should be the criteria, not mileage, Chee said.
Another issue is the price of the car. Hybrids tend to cost more than their non-hybrid counterparts. The hybrid Ford Escape is around $30,000, compared to the non-hybrid Escape in the low $20,000s.
At Power Ford in Tustin, the dealership has nearly a dozen hybrid Escapes waiting for new owners. Sales have slowed since May because the hybrids aren't part of Ford's ongoing employee-discount sale, said Steve Duke, manager of Power Ford.
"To be frank with you, no matter if it's a Toyota, Honda or Ford, there's an additional markup," Duke said.
People who don't mind paying the higher prices usually have other reasons for going hybrid, he said.
"And not that (hybrid) people are anti-society, but people who buy hybrids are more into nature. They have a different personality. The hybrid person is the person who goes to the library a lot, watches public television, a Subaru type buyer."
The environment is important, and that's why Newport Beach residents George and Cathy Margolin bought a Prius. But it's the excellent gas mileage that persuaded them to keep it.
"It wouldn't have made any practical sense," said George Margolin, who co-founded the Orange County Prius Club with his wife.
And now, with the car-pool incentive, he no longer has to ride shotgun with his wife when she travels between Los Angeles and Orange County for teaching jobs. The couple mailed their car-pool decal application to the DMV on Thursday.
Even Whitmire, a sales director at Carson Toyota, is finally breaking down and buying a Prius next week.
"Wanting to spend time with the family. That's what put me over the edge," said Whitmire, who commutes 45 miles a day to Carson from Laguna Niguel. "I don't want to sit on the 405 parking lot every day."
Interested in getting on the OC Prius Club email List for meetings? Email