Vehicle Code 21655.5 VC - Carpool Lane Violations in California

Vehicle Code 21655.5 VC is the California statute that makes it unlawful for a person to drive in a carpool lane with no passenger. A carpool lane is also referred to as a “high-occupancy vehicle lane.”

Per this statute:

(a) The Department of Transportation and local authorities, with respect to highways under their respective jurisdictions, may authorize or permit exclusive or preferential use of highway lanes for high-occupancy vehicles…

(b) The Department of Transportation and local authorities, with respect to highways under their respective jurisdictions, shall place and maintain, or cause to be placed and maintained, signs and other official traffic control devices to designate the exclusive or preferential lanes, to advise motorists of the applicable vehicle occupancy levels, and, except where ramp metering and bypass lanes are regulated with the activation of traffic signals, to advise motorists of the hours of high-occupancy vehicle usage. A person shall not drive a vehicle upon those lanes except in conformity with the instructions imparted by the official traffic control devices…

Examples of illegal acts under VC 21655.5 include:

  • while driving under the influence of alcohol (illegal per VC 23152a) Matt drives home in rush hour traffic and drives in a marked carpool lane without a passenger.
  • while heading to work in the morning, Simone races in the carpool lane with only a mannequin in the car.
  • Manny turns his car into a high occupancy vehicle lane, with no passenger, to avoid bumper to bumper traffic.

Defenses

Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a person can raise if accused of illegally driving in a carpool lane. These include showing that:

  • the accused was driving a motorcycle,
  • an emergency occurred, and
  • there was no probable cause to stop or arrest the driver.

Penalties

A violation of VC 21655.5 is charged as an infraction in California (as opposed to a misdemeanor or felony). The offense is punishable by a fine of $490.00.

Note that a violation does not result in any points being assessed to a driver's DMV record.

Our California criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:

Vehicle Code 21655.5 defines carpool lane violations in California
Vehicle Code 21655.5 defines carpool lane violations in California

1. What is prohibited under Vehicle Code 21655.5 VC?

Vehicle Code 21655.5 is the California statute that:

  1. gives the Department of Transportation (DOT) the authority to designate preferential highway lanes,
  2. allows the DOT to provide instructions to motorists on the use of those lanes, and
  3. states that a driver cannot drive on those lanes unless they follow the DOT's instructions.1

The above rules allow the DOT to mark high-occupancy vehicle lanes as carpool lanes. They also provide the authority to penalize motorists that drive in these lanes without a passenger.2

2. Legal Defenses

A person can try to challenge a VC 21655.5 accusation by raising a legal defense. A legal defense may work to reduce or even dismiss a charge.

Three common defenses to Vehicle Code 21655.5 charges include:

  1. the accused was driving a motorcycle,
  2. an emergency; and/or,
  3. no probable cause.

2.1. Motorcycle

Vehicle Code 21655.5b states that motorcyclists may drive in a carpool lane, even without a passenger or someone in a sidecar.3 This means that it is always a solid legal defense for an accused to show that, while he may have been driving in a restricted carpool lane, he was operating a motorcycle and not a car.

2.2. Emergency

The facts of a case might show that a motorist had to drive in a carpool lane because of some emergency. Perhaps, for example, the motorist had to pull into a high-occupancy vehicle lane to avoid an accident. These emergency situations do provide for a defense to VC 21655.5 accusations.

2.3. No probable cause

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that police must have probable cause before they can detain or arrest a suspect of a crime.

If a person was stopped or arrested for violating VC 21655.5, and there was no probable cause, then any evidence obtained following the improper stop/arrest could get excluded from the case. This exclusion could result in the dismissal or reduction in charges.

money under a gavel
A violation of this law can result in a fine

3. Penalties, punishment, and sentencing

A person caught driving in a carpool lane without a passenger will be charged with an infraction under California law. The offense is punishable by a fine of $490.00.4

Note that a violation does not result in any points being assessed to a driver's DMV record.

4. Related offenses

There are three laws related to the unauthorized driving in a carpool lane. These are:

  1. crossing a divided highway – VC 21651a
  2. driving on the wrong side of the road – VC 21651b, and
  3. unsafe driving on a three-lane highway – VC 21659.

4.1. Crossing a divided highway – VC 21651a

Vehicle Code 21651a VC is the California statute that prohibits drivers from driving on, or crossing over, the dividing section on a divided California roadway. The section also restricts turns on divided roadways.5

A driver in violation of VC 21651a will receive two penalties. These are:

  1. a fine of $238.00, and
  2. one point assessed to his DMV driving record.6

A driver could potentially get a negligent operator license suspension if he receives a certain number of points in a given time period (e.g., 4 points in 12 months, 6 points in 24 months or 8 points in 36 months).

4.2. Driving on the wrong side of the road – VC 21651b

Vehicle Code 21651b is the California statute that makes it a crime for a motorist to drive on the wrong side of the road.7

Driving on the wrong side of the road is a "wobbler" under California law. A "wobbler" is a crime that can be punished as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Whether a violation of VC 21651b results in a misdemeanor or felony depends on whether anyone was hurt or killed because of the violation.

A motorist guilty of driving on the wrong side of the road will also receive points on his driving record.

4.3. Unsafe driving on a three-lane highway – VC 21659

Vehicle Code 21659 is the California statute that makes it unlawful for motorists to drive unsafely on the State's three-lane highways. This essentially means a motorist can only drive in the center lane, or far left lane, of such highways in limited circumstances.8

A driver receives a ticket for violating VC 21659 and must pay a fine of $238.00.9

A motorist that violates the statute will also receive one point on his DMV driving record.10

Were you accused of illegally driving in a carpool lane in California? Call us for help…

california carpool lane attorneys
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or someone you know has been accused of a crime, per Vehicle Code 21655.5 VC, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 855-LawFirm.

For similar charges or allegations in Nevada, please see our article on: “Beating a "Carpool Violation" ticket in Nevada (NRS 484B.323).”


Legal References:

  1. California Vehicle Code 21655.5 VC. This code section states: “

    (a) The Department of Transportation and local authorities, with respect to highways under their respective jurisdictions, may authorize or permit exclusive or preferential use of highway lanes for high-occupancy vehicles. Prior to establishing the lanes, competent engineering estimates shall be made of the effect of the lanes on safety, congestion, and highway capacity.

    (b) The Department of Transportation and local authorities, with respect to highways under their respective jurisdictions, shall place and maintain, or cause to be placed and maintained, signs and other official traffic control devices to designate the exclusive or preferential lanes, to advise motorists of the applicable vehicle occupancy levels, and, except where ramp metering and bypass lanes are regulated with the activation of traffic signals, to advise motorists of the hours of high-occupancy vehicle usage. A person shall not drive a vehicle upon those lanes except in conformity with the instructions imparted by the official traffic control devices. A motorcycle, a mass transit vehicle, a blood transport vehicle that is clearly and identifiably marked as such on all sides of the vehicle, or a paratransit vehicle that is clearly and identifiably marked on all sides of the vehicle with the name of the paratransit provider may be operated upon those exclusive or preferential use lanes unless specifically prohibited by a traffic control device.”

  2. See same.

  3. California Vehicle Code 21655.5b VC.

  4. See DMV.org.

  5. California Vehicle Code 21651a VC.

  6. See DMV.org.

  7. California Vehicle Code 21651b VC.

  8. California Vehicle Code 21659 VC.

  9. See DMV.org.

  10. See same.

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