HOUSTON -- If you're running late for work, it is very tempting to hop on a HOV lane when you're not supposed to.
But the I-Team found one of the most congested freeways in Houston, Highway 290, is the hot spot for HOV cheating. And when it comes to police nabbing drivers sneaking on the fast lanes, we found the cops on the Northwest Freeway are virtually nowhere to be found.
Janet Sterling spends her mornings crawling on 290's main lanes.
“Wow, it’s backed up,” Sterling said from behind the wheel.
But who's whizzing by on the HOV? Vehicles with less than three people which is less than what the law requires during the peak rush hour period between 6:45 a.m. and 8:00 a.m.
In other words, they are cheating.
"That pisses me off,” Sterling said. "You need to suffer like the rest of us do this early in the morning, it's just ridiculous.”
Just how ridiculous?
The I-Team discovered on 290, nearly nine of ten HOV vehicles or 87 percent, didn't have enough people during the peak rush hour periods, according to Texas Transportation Institute figures.
So we decided to follow a few violators, but as you might expect, they didn’t want to talk to us.
One man hid his face heading into work, while a woman never responded when we asked: “Why are you so special that you get to break the rules and everybody else has to go on the slow lanes?”
With all the violators, you might think METRO police would crack down on the problem, right?
The I-Team found that the METRO Police Department wrote 15 citations for 290 HOV violators from March 2012 to March 2013.
So we asked METRO Police Chief Victor Rodriguez a few questions.
I-Team: “Fifteen tickets for the entire year? Where were you guys?”
Chief Rodriguez: “We were primarily on the diamond lanes."
Rodriguez said his focus has been on drivers darting into the 290 Diamond Lanes west of FM 1960, rather than HOV cheaters cruising towards downtown.
But we asked if he plans to reconsider deploying his resources.
I-Team: "Are you going to change anything?”
Chief Rodriguez: “I will always review and see if we do things better, absolutely."
But the I-Team found a different cop shop cracks the whip on HOV violators, sometimes writing dozens of tickets a day along the Katy Freeway. It's the Harris County Precinct Five Constable Office, which patrols for the Toll Road Authority.
"Unless we have strict enforcement out here, it'll be clogged up with cheaters," said Asst. Chief Randy Johnson.
Drivers aren’t always happy about it.
“I'm not going to pay for this damn thing, I'm not," said an unidentified driver.
But Johnson said the law is the law and cannot be ignored.
"We would rather people complain about us doing our job, than them complain about us not doing our job," Johnson said.
As for METRO, Chief Rodriguez said the violation numbers on Highway 290 may be overestimated.
METRO said when collecting data, spotters can't always see clearly in back seats with tinted windows.
Rodriguez also said 290 will be changing soon. It will change from a HOV to a HOT, a toll lane, where single drivers can ride the express lane legally if they pay.
Rodriguez said the new arrangement will help to cut down on the number of cheaters.