Rules of the Road

Does a dead body count as a passenger when you’re driving in the HOV lane?

Question: There is a national story circulating about the driver of a hearse who, when pulled over for traveling in the HOV lane, said he thought it was okay because there was a body on board.

It was not okay, but he got off with a warning largely because of his unique excuse.

However, I took a look at the RCWs and I don’t see anything in them that prevents you from doing that here. A morbid, but interesting possibility, would it be legal in Washington?

Answer: Okay, this might get a little metaphysical, so chant your mantra, find your center or do whatever you do before asking the big questions about life.

Before we get to the deep questions though, I’d like to point out that the stakes are about to get higher for HOV violators. On July 28, the new HOV law takes effect.

Actually, the law is the same, but the penalties got steeper. In addition to the original fine of $136, legislators have added an additional $50 for a first offense and $150 for a second offense in a two year period. There’s also a $200 add-on for anyone that uses a “dummy, doll, or other human facsimile” in the passenger seat to try to fake out the cops.

That adds up pretty fast; if your second offense includes a faux human, you’re looking at a $486 ticket.

Why are the legislators so excited about extra fines for HOV violators? After all, people who sneak into the HOV lane aren’t creating the same kinds of safety concerns as speeders, red light runners, and distracted drivers.

To answer that, I’ll use the language of the legislators who updated the law: “... individuals who engage in contrived or repeated violations of the state’s high occupancy vehicle lane restrictions frustrate the state’s congestion management and justifiably incite indignation and anger among fellow transportation system users. The legislature intends the escalating penalties prescribed in this act to rebuke and discourage such conduct ...”

Apparently it’s okay, at least according to legislators, to be indignant when we see people breaking HOV rules. They’re adding the fines to make those of us who obey the rules happier as we drive.

Just think of the schadenfreude you’ll now feel when you see someone get pulled over in the HOV lane.

But back to the question: do the dearly departed count as passengers?

The hearse driver referenced earlier was driving in Nevada, so let’s start with Nevada law. Nevada defines a High Occupancy Vehicle as “a vehicle that is transporting more than one person.”

The hearse driver was issued a warning because, according to the officer, the dead body did not count as a person.

Now we’ve reached the big metaphysical question: When does a person stop being a person?

At least in Nevada, when your heart stops beating you switch from person to cargo.

Washington’s HOV law isn’t much different. HOV lanes are available to “private motor vehicles carrying no fewer than a specified number of passengers.”

Neither state specifies that the passenger has to be alive, but law enforcement in both states (and others) do not consider dead bodies to be passengers when it comes to carpool laws.

It makes sense; the motivation behind the law is to reduce the number of cars on the road by putting two of more would-be drivers into one car. Back in 1974 when the HOV law was first written, it included a statement that the law is intended to “increase the efficient utilization of the highway.”

Transporting a dead guy does nothing to further that goal.

You might counter that young kids count as passengers in the HOV lane and they can’t do anything to reduce cars on the road.

Fair point.

But let’s give this one to the parents. If you have a couple squabbling kids in the back seat, the least we can do is let you get where you’re going a little quicker so you can escape that rolling torment.

For the few of you that might ever transport a deceased person, you can’t do it in the car pool lane.

But transporting dead bodies is not the problem; the problem is more universal. If we have a “how much can I get away with?” approach to driving, we’ll not only anger our fellow motorists as we sneak into the carpool lane, but that attitude can influence speed, following distance, red lights and right-of-way.

Instead, let’s aim to be road users who consider each other as we drive. It may add a few seconds to our drive, but we’ll all arrive happier and safer.

And yes, I did just turn an article about HOV lanes into a real traffic safety issue.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.
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