Traffic jams are often unavoidable, especially during rush hour and weekend travel. To help people get to their destinations faster, states are employing various tactics to reduce and manage traffic congestion. In some states, drivers have the option of using specially designated lanes reserved for carpoolers or paying customers—called “HOV,” “HOT,” and “express toll” lanes.
What Are HOV, HOT, and Express Toll Lanes?
High-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes are separate roadways or traffic lanes available only to vehicles with at least two or three occupants. High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes are similar, except single- or low-occupancy vehicles may also use the designated lane by paying a toll or fee. Express toll lanes, on the other hand, generally require all vehicles to pay for the convenience of using the restricted roadway; in other words, carpooling doesn’t gain free entrance.
Due to usage restrictions, HOV, HOT, and express toll lanes are generally faster and less congested than regular traffic lanes. States use them to encourage carpooling (and reduce pollution) and earn revenue for transportation projects. And by rerouting vehicles to HOV, HOT, and express toll lanes, traffic congestion is eased in the regular traffic lanes.
Who Can Use HOV, HOT, and Express Toll Lanes?
Each state has different rules that drivers must follow to when using HOV, HOT, and express toll lanes. Motorists who violate the rules risk getting a ticket, which is often quite costly. Rules are generally posted on the roadway to alert drivers regarding:
- the occupancy and transponder requirements to travel for free in the HOV lane (some states require all vehicles—even carpoolers—to use a transponder to access the HOV lane)
- the cost of any tolls or surcharges
- the time period during which occupancy or toll restrictions are enforced, and
- which, if any, vehicles are exempted from the rules or fees (for example, many states have exemptions for motorcycles, hybrid vehicles, and electric vehicles).
How Is the Toll Collected?
Collection systems vary by state and may be operated by a public or private entity. Typically, tolls are collected through electronic transponders, license plate readers, or toll booths.
Electronic Transponders. Some states collect tolls through electronic transponders, passes, or tags that attach to the vehicle’s windshield or license plates. As the vehicle is moving, an electronic reader or radio signal reads the attached device and charges the appropriate amount to the associated account (linked to your payment or billing information). In some states, drivers have the choice of purchasing or renting a “switchable” transponder that can be set to either “toll” or “HOV.” Switchable transponders allow the driver to choose the appropriate option corresponding to how many people are in the car. (Some lanes require payment only if the driver is alone or accompanied by less than two passengers.)
License Plate Readers. Another option for collecting tolls is through license plate readers. These readers photograph the license plate of the car as it passes. The driver then receives a bill at the address on file with the department of motor vehicles. Be aware that some states impose an extra surcharge when a license plate reader is used.
Toll booths. Some states also use manned- or electronic-toll booths to collect tolls. These booths are usually located at the entrance to the toll lane.
To avoid paying a fine or unnecessary surcharge, it’s important to know, ahead of time, how tolls are collected where you’re traveling. Signage should indicate the collection method. But, to avoid any confusion, the better practice is to look up the jurisdiction’s rules before using these lanes. Generally, a quick Internet search will tell you what you need to know.