Life in the fast lane is coming to an end for hybrid drivers.
After a six-year run, the yellow stickers that allow owners of about 85,000 older hybrid vehicles to drive solo in carpool lanes are expiring July 1 — this time for good.
The day of reckoning has been postponed twice before, but now that hybrids are popular and the carpool lanes are getting jammed, the Department of Motor Vehicles said there won’t be any additional extensions.
“It’s done,” said Jaime Garza, a DMV spokesman. “This is really it.”
Once the yellow stickers expire, the only Californians who will be able to drive alone in carpool lanes will be those who have white stickers for their all-electric or natural gas-powered vehicles. About 10,000 white stickers have been issued.
While hybrid drivers say they knew it was coming, the finality of it all is causing many to fret and rue the day.
“I’m dreading July 1,” said Eli Jarra, who commutes 90 miles a day from Thousand Oaks to his job as a visual effects supervisor in West Los Angeles. Jarra, who bought his Prius in part for the sticker’s benefits, said he could end up driving for more than four hours a day. His wife, also a Prius owner, worries that her 70-mile round-trip commute could take just as long.
“We’re all going to feel the full wrath of the L.A. traffic beast,” he said.
And that’s just fine for some freeway drivers who have long resented the hybrids whizzing past. Some carpoolers also complain that the extra cars have slowed up the diamond lane.
“It’s really frustrating when you’re sitting there not moving and cars are zipping by even though the driver’s alone,” said Taghrid Chaaban, who lives in Granada Hills but has to take her Scion XT into downtown Los Angeles six days a week. “That’s not fair — I want to get places too.”
Sean Becker, a North Hollywood film director, plans to eventually buy his own hybrid but still doesn’t commiserate with yellow-sticker drivers. Their vehicles, he said, have plenty of other benefits beyond diamond lane access, including eco-friendliness and lower gas expenses.
“I don’t sympathize with someone who has to adjust their schedule after having the advantage of the carpool lane for years,” Becker said. “They’ll just get the same awful L.A. traffic problems that the rest of us drivers have to deal with every day.”
The stickers were issued from 2005 to early 2007 to give drivers another reason to buy fuel-stingy cars. Those that met the state’s partial zero-emissions standards and garnered an Environmental Protection Agency rating of at least 45 miles a gallon were granted free reign over the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes sans passengers.
Perks included a speedier commute, cleaner air and sometimes a snobbish bit of elitism. The popularity of the program spawned thefts and a small black market for the stickers, which can’t be legally transferred to another vehicle, including a new hybrid. Because most were given out within the first year, only older hybrids have the stickers.
After the decals ran out, some used hybrids with the stickers sold for more than $1,000 above other hybrids.
The stickers were originally set to expire in 2008. But hybrid owners, with the help of used-car dealers looking to boost resale values, fought for an extension and got the sunset date pushed to January 2011.
The decals’ end date was extended again to July in large part so law enforcement could warn yellow-stickered drivers that they could soon be ticketed like other carpool violators.
Hybrid drivers hoping for another reprieve are out of luck, officials said. Times have changed since the program began.
The government was trying to juice up anemic hybrid sales, which in 2004 were hovering around 85,000 vehicles nationwide. In 2005, the year the program began, sales boomed to nearly 207,000 and jumped yearly until reaching 353,000 in 2007, when the state handed out its last sticker, according to J.D. Power & Associates.
California accounts for a quarter of all hybrids registered in the country, according to research firm R.L. Polk & Co.
Sales slipped to 274,000 units last year but are projected to rise this year to 350,000 as high gas prices drive demand for fuel-efficient vehicles, said J.D. Power analyst Mike Omotoso. And as automakers roll out more hybrid models, more than 600,000 such vehicles could be sold in 2012.
“When they got that sticker, it was very clear that it was eventually going to expire and that it wasn’t an indefinite opportunity to drive in that lane,” said Adam Keigwin, chief of staff for state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who authored the last extension.
Their expiration will “give the carpool lane a break” from the growing hordes of cars, Keigwin said.
Jarra and other yellow-stickered hybrid owners are scrambling to find a way to stay in the diamond lane.
“It’s my only savior at the moment,” Jarra said. “I feel pretty bad passing stopped traffic, thinking about all those poor souls who have to endure it.”
Some owners are considering trading up to the all-electric Nissan Leaf or other vehicles that can qualify for the coveted white stickers that don’t expire until 2015.
They are also looking at waiting until automakers start selling a new generation of hybrid vehicles that meet stricter emission requirements and qualify for green stickers that California will begin issuing next year. Only 40,000 green stickers will be available.
Tom Persky of Laguna Beach bought two natural gas-powered Honda Civic GXs that have white stickers. The vehicles, which cost just $2 a gallon to fill up, are still relatively uncommon.
“The people who have the yellow stickers are people who made great decisions a long time ago, but their cars are really not exceptional anymore,” Persky said. “These stickers should be a benefit for the early adopters of breakthrough technology, who have to put up with a little bit of a harder path.”
Frank Deichsel, who has a yellow sticker on his Prius, was worried about his 45-minute commute from Pasadena doubling. So the software programmer changed shifts at his Simi Valley job to beat the crowds.
“These extra hybrids are just going to clog up everyone else’s lanes now,” he said.
But most drivers, such as San Jose resident Kim Helliwell, have resigned themselves to long commutes “traveling in the peon lanes.”
Helliwell bought his 2006 Prius when filling up his Jeep Grand Cherokee cost more than $50. The yellow sticker let him avoid rude and pushy drivers in the snarled regular lanes, he said.
“There’s a bit of satisfaction getting around them,” he said of driving to Sunnyvale for his software engineering job. “It’s not very mature of me, but it does feel good.”
Helliwell said he doesn’t want to carpool because he doesn’t want to waste time picking up passengers. And buying an electric car would be too expensive. So instead, he’ll experiment with new routes to avoid a longer commute.
“I’m pretty bummed, but I’m going to live with it,” he said.