California Highway Patrol Officer Alvin Yamaguchi knows a dummy when he sees one.
And as an officer who patrols the county’s car-pool lanes, he’s seen plenty.
“People will try anything to fool us,” said Yamaguchi, who has built a reputation capturing car-pool lane violators and their inanimate passengers.
“Some of them get real elaborate,” he said Tuesday, pointing to a department store mannequin decked out in $100 sunglasses, makeup and stylish clothes. “I got that one from a lady in a Mercedes-Benz.”
Despite fines of $246 for first-time offenders--the fines jump to $613.50 for people caught three times within two years--CHP officials say many commuters continue to illegally sneak into the car-pool lanes. In Orange County last year, nearly 9,000 people were cited for car-pool lane violations on the San Diego, Orange, Riverside and Costa Mesa freeways.
In addition, drivers can be cited for crossing the yellow lines while entering or leaving the car-pool lanes and for running the metered lights on freeway on-ramps.
But it’s the ones “who try and beat the system” with often-realistic human dummies that Yamaguchi really enjoys nabbing.
As the department leader in dummy apprehensions with more than a dozen in 18 months, Yamaguchi knows most of the tricks drivers use to make it appear they meet the two-person occupancy minimum.
As mute testimony to Yamaguchi’s keen abilities, a half-dozen of his detainees were displayed at the station in Santa Ana. The dummies ranged from the expensive, lifelike mannequins to homemade models with foam heads and wigs, baseball caps and shirts stuffed with newspapers. There was also a baby doll in one car seat and a stuffed teddy bear in another.
Female drivers seem to be the boldest and most frequent violators, he said.
“The ladies use baby car seats and dolls and put blankets around them,” said the 7-year veteran motorcycle officer. “Unless I drive up right next to (them) and look down into their car, it’s hard to catch them. Even then, a lot of (the dolls) look very realistic.”
One time, Yamaguchi spotted a male driver with a baby seat and motored next to him to take a look.
“He had a blanket covering the seat,” Yamaguchi said. “I pointed at him to take it off. When he did, there was a bottle of champagne on ice.”
Some drivers pretend they are having lively discussions with their dummies, or position their ersatz passenger to make it look as if it’s sleeping, Yamaguchi said.
Other drivers use heavily tinted windows to block an officer’s view of the dummies inside. In those cases, Yamaguchi said, he pulls the driver over because most tinted windows are illegal anyway.
“I get a lot of limo drivers that way,” he said.
Yamaguchi’s favorite, however, was the time he spotted a man driving in the car-pool lane with his German shepherd in the passenger seat with its safety belt on.
“This guy told me that he shouldn’t get cited because the dog was a family member. . . . He was adamant about it,” he said. There seems to be no end to which some drivers will go to cheat the system.
There have been reports of pregnant women trying to argue they’re carrying a second passenger. They’ve lost that argument in court. Perhaps the strangest tale of all was the time an undertaker figured the dead body in the back of his hearse gave him the extra occupant he needed to drive in the car-pool lane. He, too, lost in court.
Because of the number of violators, CHP officers in Santa Ana work special car-pool enforcement details during morning and afternoon rush hours.
Officers with the enforcement team often hide in “buffer zones” between the car-pool lane and center divider. Yamaguchi said he sometimes tries to position himself in front of trucks in the fast lane and watches the cars in the car-pool lane approaching in his rear-view mirror.
“That way they don’t see me until they pass me,” he said.
Yamaguchi said officers “get a lot of help from people on the freeway. They’ll honk and point out violators. They love it when we pull them over. They’ll honk then, too, and wave and smile.
“There’s a lot of stress on the freeway. People don’t want to wait in traffic. Whenever you pull somebody over, it’s always ‘I was late.’ They’ll do anything to get there quicker,” Yamaguchi said as he looked at his dummies.
Then he smiled and said, “That’s my trophy case.”