Prius drivers to lose a perk in California: HOV lane privileges

SACRAMENTO — Toyota Prius drivers, prepare to move over. Your days of riding solo in carpool lanes are numbered.

The yellow stickers that gave high-mileage hybrid cars diamond lane access the past five years will no longer be valid next year. They will be replaced by stickers for a new, even more exclusive generation of eco-friendly cars.

San Francisco Sen. Leland Yee's Senate Bill 535, now on the governor's desk, reflects a changing of the avant-garde in California's diamond lanes.

It gives the 85,000 high-mileage vehicles (45 mpg-plus) now in the carpool lane program until June of next year before they must pull out.

(That's a surprise reprieve for them. Without Yee's bill, their privilege would sunset at the end of this year.)

Then, in January 2012, a new sticker program would take over, allowing 40,000 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles – categorized as "Enhanced AT PZEVs" – to take their place.

Like the current program, Yee's proposal allows certain single-occupant cars to use the diamond lane. Historically, diamond lanes were reserved for cars with two or more passengers.

Yee means no disrespect to the trailblazing Toyota Prius and its hybrid brethren. Those cars have led the way to a cleaner driving future. But he says it's time to encourage people to buy even more efficient cars.

At the head of the newly eligible list is the Chevy Volt. No surprise. Chevy's parent company, General Motors, is a sponsor of the proposed new law.

But Toyota probably won't be left out. Its upcoming generation of the Prius, a plug-in version expected out in the next year or so, should qualify for a sticker.

The all-electric Nissan Leaf already qualifies under a separate "white sticker" state program for even cleaner cars.

Notably, Yee's new stickers would not go into effect until six months after the current yellow sticker program ends.

Yee made that deal to allow manufacturers extra time to get cars ready for market, ostensibly so they can have an equal start line in the upcoming race for carpool lane access in 2012.

Those stickers probably will require a new color too. Yee suggests green.

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