by George Warren

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) —The growing congestion on Sacramento-area freeways presents a temptation a stunning number of drivers apparently can’t avoid.

“Everybody’s doing it. It’s very common,” said West Sacramento resident Desmond Sargeant, a daily Bay Area commuter.

As a matter of policy, Caltrans has established a violation rate goal of no more than 10 percent. But a recent survey by CBS13 suggests the state’s goal is wildly optimistic.

During the evening commute on Mar. 21, a camera on the Cirby Way overpass in Roseville recorded the westbound Interstate 80 HOV lane for 20 minutes. During that period the camera recorded a total of 459 vehicles, of which 198 had no passenger in the front seat — a potential violation rate of 43 percent.

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The survey shows the difficulty of trying to enforce HOV compliance with a camera; it was impossible to tell which vehicles might have a clean air decal allowing solo occupant access to the carpool lane, although as of Jan. 1 most hybrids no longer qualify. Only cars designated as super ultra-low emission vehicles such as pure electrics or plug-in hybrids are eligible for the red or purple decals.

It wasn’t possible to see backseat passengers, although many of the vehicles observed were work trucks with lumber racks and ladders. One of them was a FedEx van with presumably no one riding in the back.

California Highway Patrol officer Jim Young says one of the challenges with enforcing carpool compliance is that the commute hours usually result in higher-priority calls such as crashes and disabled vehicles, making it hard for patrol officers to sneak up on violators.

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“I can drive down Highway 99 in my personal vehicle and I can see a ton of people in the HOV lane,” Young said. “But once I get in the black and white cruiser, people see that CHP cruiser from miles away.”

In the CHP’s entire Valley Division, which runs from Tracy to Chico, officers only wrote 3,773 tickets for carpool lane violations last year.

Transportation officials in the Bay Area have experimented with special cameras designed to detect the number of people in a vehicle, but haven’t yet overcome technical challenges, privacy concerns, and state law that doesn’t permit camera enforcement in HOV lanes.