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Commuter caught with dummy in HOV lane

It’s a time-worn ruse, as old as the high occupancy vehicle lane itself: The old stick-a-dummy-in-the-passenger-seat trick.

A 32-year-old Holbrook man attempted the familiar ploy Thursday morning, propping up a mannequin head in his passenger seat before driving into the carpool lane on the northbound side of Interstate 93 in an attempt to beat the traffic, State Police said.

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But the stunt did not get him past Trooper John Carnell, who spotted the imposter at about 6:25 a.m. near the Braintree split and slapped the driver with a $50 fine.

Carnell, who was working a motorcycle detail in Quincy, was able to get a good look at the mannequin, which was sporting a 5 o’clock shadow, because the car was cruising by at about 5 miles per hour. The head was cocked back against the headrest, almost as if the figure was sleeping. But something was amiss.

“The position of the neck didn’t seem right,” Carnell said.

Carnell stopped the motorist just north of the Braintree split — “I think he knew that he was busted,” Carnell recalled — and discovered the dummy head, which had been propped on a work jacket, he said. In addition to handing the driver a citation, Carnell asked to have the lightweight plastic head, which had hazel eyes, thick curling eyelashes, a bald head, and dark shading suggesting facial hair on his upper lip and jawline.

“On a scale of ten, I’d give this one a five,” Carnell said. “Maybe the eyelashes add a little something.”

The driver apologized, and offered a simple explanation: Traffic was really, really bad.

“I know traffic is tough,” Carnell said. “But people have patience, and this person should have had patience, too.”

Typically, Carnell monitors the HOV lane about three mornings a week, and he usually gives several citations per week to solo drivers in the carpool lane.

Thursday’s driver, whom State Police declined to identify by name, was far from the first person to try to use a dummy to skate past traffic during rush hour.

Carnell spotted a fake passenger once before, a year ago, when he stopped a car and saw that a woman had placed a doll in a car seat, attempting to disguise it as a passenger. That driver was issued a citation.

According to figures from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the zipper lane carries approximately 7,500 to 8,500 vehicles per day. MassDOT spokeswoman Sara Lavoie said there are no records on the number of drivers pulled over for having counterfeit passengers, but she has heard of similar instances in the past.

Vehicles in the HOV lane must be occupied by at least two people. But when it was first opened in 1995 to alleviate rush-hour traffic and encourage carpooling, cars were required to have three or more passengers.

Within a few months, State Police began spotting suspiciously stiff travelers occupying passenger or back seats, a ruse that has continued over the years. Some were blow-up dolls; one was a bearded mannequin wearing a cowboy hat.

On Nov. 17, 1995, two imposters were caught on the same day. One dummy was crafted from a mannequin head, initially used as a prop for Halloween, with red hair, a black eye, and grisly scars, similar to the character from “Child’s Play.” The head was taped to the top of a stepladder wrapped in a sweatshirt. The figure’s Frankenstein appearance in the back seat was a dead giveaway, State Police told the Globe at the time.

The trooper confiscated the dummy head as evidence, and it still resides at the HOV headquarters in Quincy.

The other dummy that day was less convincing, improvised by two Brockton brothers trying to hustle to work and exasperated with traffic.

They used a football, plunked atop an upturned 5-gallon bucket, and slapped on an Elmer Fudd-style winter hat with ear flaps.

State troopers confiscated the football, too.

Globe correspondent Jacqueline Tempera contributed to this report. Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com.
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