Traffic Q&A: In the carpool lanes, babies qualify as passengers

Question: Do babies count for the carpool lane? — Heather H., Tacoma

Answer: Although babies, hunkered down in their car seats, aren’t as visible as front-seat passengers — or even the mannequins or inflatable figures you occasionally hear about scofflaws using to infiltrate the carpool lane — even the littlest infant in a swaddling blanket counts for lanes with a multiple-person requirement.

The state’s High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes make no distinction for age or licensing status when counting people in the car, said state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Cara Mitchell.

By the state’s count, there are about 310 miles of carpool lanes in Washington. Projects in Pierce and King counties will bring that to 320 miles. Almost all of it is as wide open — for now — to any adult shuttling a baby in a proper car seat as it is for a 50-passenger bus.

The exception is state Route 520 near Bellevue. Its carpool-or-toll lane is what the state posts as “3+,” signage-speak for “you must have three or more people in your car to drive here without paying a toll.”

Though the state counts any child on board as a passenger, this applies only to babies who have come out to meet the world, a principle several states have labored to make abundantly clear.

In Arizona, a woman in 2006 lost a court challenge to a carpool-lane violation ticket, arguing she qualified because she was pregnant. In California, the law specifies separate individuals occupying their own seats. Washington’s highways have the same rule.

“If you’re pregnant and you’re basically one person with one seat in the car, no, that doesn’t count,” Mitchell said. “We don’t get into that philosophical debate.”

The other end of our great collective journey also offers no help toward getting into the carpool lane.

Transporting the body of someone who has taken the final exit at the end of life’s highway doesn’t mean a spot in the carpool lane can be taken by the (hopefully!) breathing driver, said Transportation Department spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker

She could not say authorities have never seen it tried, perhaps by some oft-gridlocked commuter who spotted a hearse for sale and felt an idea spark to life.

Other imaginative HOV subversions have been documented and caught in the region.

Earlier this year, a driver in Fife was ticketed for HOV lane use for having a cardboard Dos Equis sales prop in the shape of a person belted into the passenger seat.

In 2010, a “Go, Diego, Go” doll was the only character riding shotgun in an Auburn-Bellevue commuter’s car caught in the northbound HOV lane of state Route 167.

“We’ve had some very creative people out there,” Bingham Baker said.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693