HOV lanes are pretty much universally recognized as an effective tool to drastically reduce congestion and commute times. And Middle Tennessee ranks sixth in the nation for total HOV lane miles. That should mean reduced congestion in Middle Tennessee, right?

But on your morning commute, do you find yourself gritting your teeth and muttering words your mother wouldn’t like to hear about how slow everyone’s moving?

Why? Because Tennessee is routinely among the lowest, if not the lowest, state in the country for enforcing HOV laws.

A 2014 TDOT study estimated that between 63 and 96 percent of drivers violate HOV lane laws on the state’s 147 miles of HOV lanes.

How is Tennessee rock bottom?

It’s rock bottom in two ways: last in violation enforcement and lowest for violation fines.

What’s the fine?

A typical speeding ticket in Tennessee runs around $250. The fine for HOV violation is only $50 – not a huge deterrent. With speeding, other factors can quickly impact your wallet and your driving privileges. Get caught speeding too many times and your fines increase each time. Not to mention, with Tennessee’s point system, you can have your license suspended or revoked. Get caught going more than 25 mph over the limit, and you can be given a reckless driving charge. That fine starts at $500 and up to six months in jail.

Not with HOV violations. Violate that state law as many times as you like for $50 a pop! It’s considered a parking ticket. No wonder the highway is a parking lot in rush hour.

So just how much are HOV violations being enforced?

Enforcement of HOV seems to boil down to one thing: “Really, we operate on the honor system,” said TDOT’s Chief Engineer Paul Degges.

Lt. Mike Gilliland of the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) traffic section said “danger to the officer is the issue” when it comes to enforcement. Traffic stops initiated from the far left lane, he said, make them more dangerous traffic stops than any other. He also said it is simply not a priority compared to other traffic violations.

Here’s the annual totals for HOV lane citations in Davidson County the past three years:

2016 – 123
2015 – 140
2014 – 281

Only 123 HOV lane citations in 2016, out of 56,878 total traffic violations countywide, with seatbelt (2,766 citations) and speeding (29,347 citations) being the top two offenses.

MNPD’s data does not break down the location of offenses, therefore these numbers include stops on interstates, secondary roads, highways, etc.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP), which patrols the area outside of Davidson County and outside major cities and the majority of the 147 miles of HOV lanes in the state, seems to operate on the same prioritize-by-safety system of policing as does the MNPD.

The THP did not have much higher HOV stats:

 

As the graph above shows, HOV enforcement has declined sharply over the past eight years – it’s clearly not a priority.

Compared to other states with a similar number of HOV lanes, like Arizona, Virginia and Texas, Tennessee’s number of citations is low. Arizona has 190 miles of HOV lanes and issued 7,364 citations in 2015. Virginia, with 113 HOV miles, had more than 100 times the citations than Tennessee, with 18,194 in 2013, the most recently available number. In Dallas, alone, 5,369 HOV citations were issued in 2016. All this info is according to the respective state’s law enforcement.

“While we enforce all the laws, we must police by reducing the most dangerous behavior,” Lt. Bill Miller, a Public Information Officer with the THP said. “And pulling someone over in the far left lane presents a lot of danger, because we require drivers to pull over on the right. It is just not safe to pull over on the left– especially right next to the fastest lanes.”

Who actually does the enforcing?

The way the highway is policed in Tennessee, when lanes go through certain jurisdictions, those jurisdictions play a role in enforcing the laws. That means smaller local jurisdictions assist in patrolling the highways that go through their cities and towns.

MNPD is authorized to enforce all highway laws once a driver enters Davidson County, where a majority of HOV lanes exist. In Davidson County, where I-40, I-65, and I-24 (the three highways in the county with HOV lanes) converge, more than 350,000 cars commute every day into and out of the county, according to TDOT.

The City of Brentwood, located right on the border between Davidson and Williamson Counties, had over 156,000 cars moving through its jurisdiction on I-65 per day in 2016. That was just shy of 60 million cars total for the year.

Brentwood Police issued a total of 119 citations on I-65 in 2016. Of those, 32 were for speeding, 24 for not having proof of insurance, 21 for expired registration, and 6 for careless driving.

But there were zero for HOV lane violations.

I-65 from Williamson County to Nashville is regarded as perhaps the worst stretch of highway for HOV violation rates in the state (the country, for that matter) according to TDOT. As recently as 2014, TDOT records estimate that 85 to 90 percent of drivers were misusing HOV lanes on I-65 during morning and evening rush hours.

What’s the solution?

Should the region try to address its traffic issues with a multi-billion dollar, regional mass transit system? Or should it start with a simpler, cheaper solution that might just help now — enforcing HOV lanes.

Perhaps both.

Some regional and state leaders are trying to address the problem now, with an eye to the future. Recently the Williamson County chamber of commerce unanimously endorsed legislation to increase enforcement of HOV lanes, put forth by Rep. Sam Whitson and sponsored State Senator Jack Johnson. The future will tell. Hopefully, it is one we can get to without sitting in traffic for so long we never get there.

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