The black van was driving southbound in the carpool lane of Interstate 15, just past the Stratosphere hotel and casino in Las Vegas, when the Nevada Highway Patrol trooper noticed the driver appeared to be alone.
He flipped on his red and blue lights and pulled the driver over.
“Hi! Trooper Smaka, Nevada Highway Patrol,” he said as the man in the van handed him his driver’s license. “You got your registration and insurance as well?”
Then the driver sort of nodded and motioned toward the back of the van. He said there was a body back there.
“Oh, you have a deceased in the back?” Trooper Travis Smaka repeated coolly.
And so began the brief, unusual attempt by a mortuary driver in Las Vegas to claim a corpse as his passenger.
The traffic stop Monday came amid increased HOV lane enforcement on I-15 running parallel to the Las Vegas Strip. Since mid-June, it’s a $250 fine to drive solo in a carpool lane — a change from before when enforcement occurred only during morning and evening rush hours. On the first day of enforcement, the department reported dozens were ticketed.
The change has been met with a lot of gripes among locals.
Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Jason Buratczuk said officers expected to hear some of the usual excuses that they’ve encountered while enforcing the HOV lanes on U.S. Route 95: rushing to work, rushing to the hospital or rushing to an important appointment.
But rushing the dead to a funeral home? Weird, Buratczuk said.
Today we stopped a local funereal home hearse in the HOV lane. The driver had the dearly departed in the back, he thought the deceased could be counted as two people. I guess we should clarify this, living, breathing people count for the HOV lane. The driver was given a warning pic.twitter.com/OQms0ktl8t— NHP Southern Command (@NHPSouthernComm) July 1, 2019
“Yes, it’s a person, but they’re not in a seat and they’re not living and breathing,” he said. “This body was in the rear cargo area and that doesn’t qualify as a seat.”
What if the dead were riding shotgun?
“The HOV violation is the least of your concerns,” Buratczuk said.
People have been trying to skirt carpool lane laws since their inception — and often in creative, if not successful, ways.
There was the man in Washington who tried to beat an HOV violation by putting a hoodie on a plastic skeleton he’d had at home. Or the California man who claimed the articles of incorporation for his business that rested on the passenger seat — minus a seat belt — were his passenger while he zipped along in the HOV lane of Highway 101. And the Arizona woman who argued in court that her fetus was legitimate extra passenger that should count toward using the carpool lane. The judge disagreed.
The corpse was a new gambit to Buratczuk, even though the body camera video showed the driver seemed to know he was throwing a Hail Mary with the rationale. The Nevada Highway Patrol did not release the name of the driver or the funeral home where he worked.
Smaka laughed when the driver asked whether the body in the back counted. It didn’t appear to be a larger, more philosophical question.
“He’s not with us anymore,” Smaka said, before letting the driver go with a warning — and a metaphor for all.
Tickets and traffic can be beat. Death cannot.