06/09/2014 07:10 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

It's an HOV Lane, Not the Autobahn

HOV lanes, love 'em or hate 'em, are here to stay. (Unless, of course, they're co-opted into Fast Track toll lanes, but that's--GRRR--another blog post.) They're supposed to let high occupancy vehicles bypass the ever-present freeway traffic jams and breeze through otherwise grinding commutes. Sure, even the carpool lanes sometimes get jammed, but most of the time, they are open and can shorten driving times by 15-30 minutes.

What HOV lanes are not are "fast, fast lanes". Speed limits on most LA freeways are 55-65. Despite the stridency of "prima facie" driving advocates, i.e. we are allowed to drive as fast as the weather and road conditions will bear, LA freeways are not autobahns. Speed limits are speed limits, the maximum speeds legally allowed on the road.

Yet, unless a marked California Highway Patrol car is in the vicinity, the left lanes of LA freeways are routinely occupied by speeders going over 70 miles an hour, and, in many cases, over 80. I've been tailgated and harassed by a honking car with lights blinking when driving the speed limit in the middle lanes, and even the right lanes of many freeways. No, I'm not going to pull over onto the shoulder just so you can pass.

I usually do what's recommended. Slow down a bit, leave more following distance ahead, and let the impatient and "accident waiting to happen" driver pass around me. Yes, I see your middle finger, thank you. But, I'll bet my insurance premium is lower than yours.

But, if we're in the HOV lane going the speed limit, when the SUV, truck, sports car, or luxury car looms large in my rear view mirror, blinking his lights, I'm kind of trapped. As we're all aware, one is not supposed to cross the double yellow lines to enter or exit the HOV lanes. I'm not willing to risk a ticket costing hundreds of dollars and hours in traffic school just to get out of his way. (Yes, most of these drivers are male.) So, I have to hope that I'm not rear-ended by a tailgating vehicle that dwarfs mine until the next HOV lane entrance.

And then, when I'm officially allowed to exit, what can I do? If traffic in the regular lanes is jammed, I have to slow to a crawl, find a space to work my way in, and then sit in a 5 mph flow, so that the speeder can go 80. If we ease back into the carpool lane, it won't be long before another speeder is riding our tail.

If traffic in the regular lanes is light, we're faced with the choice of navigating an exit-entrance at every HOV break, or opting just to go back to the regular lanes for good. Sounds like a plan, but this is LA, with a traffic jam around every corner; after a mile or two, we usually end up being stuck back in a 5 mph flow, while the speeder is bullying his way through the HOV lanes.

So, feeling like Dennis Weaver in Spielberg's Duel, I usually end up looking around for the never-present CHP, and then yield to the tailgater's aggressiveness and up our speed a bit, too. Fearing a speeding ticket, I don't dare drive more than 5-7 mph over the posted speed limit, and worry that I'll be the one caught in the face of blinking signs warning of "Strict Enforcement". A few times, I've been relieved to see police on the road, but, if the black and white's aren't speeding themselves, I've never seen them pull over one of these speed demons. (Though they have busted a few double yellow line-crossing scofflaws.) But my efforts don't assuage these bullies--even at 9 miles over the speed limit, they have passed us on the right, legally or over yellow lines, and have sometimes stopped to yell at us or toss an assaultive one-finger salute out of the driver's window, before screeching off ahead to harass their next victim.

So, I'm keeping up my end of the deal when it comes to HOV lanes. Even though I've frequently had to hit the brakes to avoid hitting abrupt yellow-line-crossing entrants, and wish I could drive more slowly when traffic conditions are tricky, I'll continue to drive at the speed limit in the HOV lane. But, if you want to go over the speed limit and risk a ticket or an accident, don't try to do it in the lane reserved for smooth traffic flow, not speed. Go back into the regular lanes and take your chances with tickets and traffic in the left lanes there--and then try to convince the judge that it's okay to drive 85 and risk everyone else's lives on our crowded SoCal freeways. Or not. Better yet, don't exceed the speed limit; keep us all safe.