Caltrans Puts Brakes on Broader Use of Car-Pool Lanes


Dear Street Smart:

In Northern California, the car-pool lanes I've seen and driven on are also for general use in the off-peak hours. They are differentiated from the regular lanes only by the diamond symbol painted on the roadway and signs placed on the center divider.

By creating their car-pool lanes this way, they have made a major contribution to improved traffic flow in off-hours and I believe created an environment that is actually safer than what we have overall.

Arlyn Obert, Huntington Beach

You're not alone in your confusion over why Caltrans won't open up car-pool lanes to general traffic use in off hours. Another reader writes:

Dear Street Smart:

The purpose of car-pool lanes is not in question during the well-defined rush-hour periods. But only a few commuters will be working on Saturdays and virtually none on Sundays. Traffic jams occur any day, at any time, and those precious lanes are being forbidden to all except families on weekend outings. Fair? I think not. We all paid for those lanes. Sensible? Stop-and-go traffic is notoriously polluting, stressful and unnerving on motorists. Surely Caltrans, in its infinite wisdom, could devise a simple light system so that we could use those lanes during off-peak hours.

John P. Lejeune, Orange

It turns out that opening car-pool lanes to general traffic during off-peak hours, as is done in Northern California, has caused problems, according to Joe El-Harake, the Caltrans traffic engineer who oversees local car-pool lane operations.

Caltrans has found that when you allow car-pool lanes to be used by regular traffic during off-hours, people lose their respect for obeying the law during the rush hours, according to El-Harake.

"You wind up with a very high violation rate," El-Harake said. He cites statistics indicating that lanes in Orange County have only a 5% to 6% violation rate, while those up north have a rate between 30% and 70%.

Such a violation rate here would be intolerable because it would overload the car-pool lanes, which already carry a considerable number of cars. For example, during afternoon hours on the Costa Mesa Freeway, the car-pool lanes average the same number of cars as a regular lane, El-Harake said.

Furthermore, El--Harake disputes that there is a need to open up these lanes during off-peak hours. After all, when rush hour is over, the general traffic lanes generally move along without delay, so opening up an additional lane helps little.

Car-pool lanes have been bitterly debated, and not everyone agrees with Caltrans. But among those who do agree are some officials in Northern California: Some districts up north are thinking of adopting the methods of their southern siblings, according to El-Harake.

Dear Street Smart:

In the past, I have read articles about the El Toro Road and Moulton Parkway intersection. It is almost always overloaded, especially at peak hours. It needs a monstrous overhaul, but I have a solution to part of the problem that could be accomplished with a minimum of cost.

The southbound traffic on Moulton is always backing up. There are two through lanes for traffic, but people are always turning right. There is undeveloped land nearby that could be used to build a right-turn lane.

Kenneth Hencier, Laguna Hills

What you suggest is already in the works. Street Smart reported in April that the county planned to add a third through lane there as well as a right-turn lane. It was supposed to have started early this summer, but delays in acquiring right of way to some property pushed back the start date, according to Tom Mahood, the project manager overseeing the expansion.

Look for work to begin in mid-February, with the lane being completed about a month later, if all goes well. Work will also continue a few months longer out there in order to widen Moulton Parkway from four to six lanes between El Toro Road and Glenwood Drive.

Dear Street Smart:

My ex-spouse has recently taken to riding his motorcycle with our almost 4-year-old son as a passenger. This is causing me to be very concerned for my son's safety.

Can you tell me if there are any laws or regulations pertaining to young passengers on motorcycles. I've tried to research this myself and have received mixed messages.

Also, are there any guidelines for children's helmets? If so, do they need to have Department of Transportation approval, and is there a list of approved helmets? Currently, my son is using a helmet that is 20 years old.

Colleen Culver, Santa Ana

There's no law against having a young child on a motorcycle, according to the local California Highway Patrol office.

"He can take a child on a motorcycle, but the child must be wearing a helmet," Officer Juan Alfaro said. While children 15 1/2 and older don't need a helmet, the issue becomes moot after the new year, when a new law will require all riders to wear one.

As for helmets, they must have the Department of Transportation seal of approval and fit properly. All helmets sold in California should have a DOT sticker on the inside, Alfaro said.

You're right to be concerned about your son's helmet being old. While it may have been DOT-approved at the time and remains legal, helmets should be replaced about every five years because standards constantly improve, according to spokespersons for the motorcycle industry and a helmet manufacturer.

To help you choose the right size helmet, here are some tips from Lee Jason, public relations director for Bell Helmets, a major helmet manufacturer:

* Try on the smallest helmet that you can fit into. Don't be shy about tugging it down; only if its impossible to get on should you move to a larger size.

* With the helmet on, grab it with your hands and rotate it from side-to-side, then up and down. The helmet should tug your skin as it moves. If not, it is too large.

* With the helmet chin strap fastened, reach over the top of the helmet and grab the edge above the eyes. Pull hard and see if the helmet comes off. If so, or nearly so, it's too large.

* After wearing the helmet a while, check your forehead and cheeks for reddening. If you felt discomfort in these areas, you may need a bigger helmet. If you can't remember discomfort, put the helmet back on for a few minutes and check.

As it may be difficult to find helmets small enough for a young child, Jason passed along the numbers of two manufacturers that make them: Tucker/Rocky Distribution, which carries Griffin Helmets, at (800) 347-7070, and Monarch Sport Equipment at (800) 451-2283. Helmet dealers might have other suggestions too.

You may also want to provide your child with other protective gear, such as a leather jacket, gloves, kneepads and boots, Jason said. He also added, however, that you'll probably not want him so loaded down as to make him feverish.

For general information on motorcycles, motorcycle safety and safety courses, readers can call (800) 833-3995 for fact brochures from the Motorcycle Industry Council.

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