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Speed cameras in school zones NOT universally beloved

Longfellow Elementary School crossing guard LaCrisha Loper stands with students before assisting them across Nevada at Empire, June 14, 2016, in Spokane, Wash. The school zone speed camera program has issued 4,248 tickets in the Nevada zone between Jan. 1 and May 31, 2016. (Dan Pelle)
Longfellow Elementary School crossing guard LaCrisha Loper stands with students before assisting them across Nevada at Empire, June 14, 2016, in Spokane, Wash. The school zone speed camera program has issued 4,248 tickets in the Nevada zone between Jan. 1 and May 31, 2016. (Dan Pelle)

Yesterday's front page had an article I wrote about the amount of tickets being issued due to cameras that nab speeders near two Spokane elementary schools.

The numbers are astounding.

Near Longfellow Elementary School in northeast Spokane, drivers are particularly speedy, an observation based solely on the number of citations issued at the intersection of North Nevada Street and East Empire Avenue, where speed limits drop to 20 mph when children are present or warning lights are flashing. From Jan. 1 to May 31, 4,248 tickets have been issued at that intersection. That equals about eight speeding tickets for every student.

With fines ranging between $234 and $450, it's no mean feat to pay this tickets.

When I began reporting the story, I figured I would find a few drivers and at least one notable City Council member with concerns about the cameras and large amount of tickets coming out of them. While I didn't (and couldn't) interview every one of the thousands of drivers that go through that intersection everyday, the ones I did interview all agreed that the cameras were necessary. So did Councilman Mike Fagan, who has been very critical of the cameras in the past, and was the only council member to vote against the program.

I was surprised, but the emails I received after the article came out revealed other concerns.

A woman wrote me, suggesting I was ignoring the plight of drivers:

Dear Mr. Deshais:

Regarding your article Wednesday regarding the school-zone speed camera program.  Your article was completely one sided.  To be fair, you need to write an article on behalf of  drivers. 

Did you wonder why thousands of tickets are being issued? Isn’t this excessive?  Why are cameras on a through fare?  Is it possible the school zone is not posted well,  and drivers can’t see it well and the camera is a trap set up? What percentage of the fine goes to the city? What percentage goes to Arizona or other out of state companies involved with the set-up?   Fines are billed but how many are actually paid?   What happens to driving records?  What officer signs these tickets?   When issued, how do you know who’s driving the car? What information is available when a driver calls the county office to inquire about such a ticket?  What happens when the ticket isn’t paid?  How well have these out of state operated cameras held up in other states?

Dig a little deeper and perhaps you might find out this is a very slimy operation that only has very little to do with safety  but to do with revenue producing  for the camera operators in Arizona.  My comments are to please report “on the other side” , and perhaps provide answers to my questions.

Have you been ticketed in these zones?  Good luck. It’s a scam.

A man said he supported the program, but had concerns with the technology. He came up with a better way (in my opinion) to notify drivers:

Nick

Your story regarding the school zone cameras hit a nerve with me.

I truly believe that the safety of our school kids is paramount, and I am very careful in school zones, but the ticket I received this month is nothing but bogus.

I was on Nevada early June  around 3pm traveling at 34 mph and came upon the school zone light, which was NOT lit up at the time so I was traveling at the normal speed.  Not only was I traveling at that speed but everyone else was too.   The video of the infraction shows traffic moving at the normal 35 mph.  Traffic was flowing normally and there was not a child in sight.  Had the light been visibly illuminated, I would have slowed down immediately and I sure everyone else would have too.    I do not believe that all the citizens that day were so crass that they didn’t care about the children’s safety.  The light was not working or it was not working properly where it would have been visible.  The still photo I received even verifies my position.  You cannot tell the light was on I’m sure that was the case for everyone else but Spokane most likely cleaned up that day on all the so called “violators”.

The problem is with these camera tickets you have no recourse.  You are guilty until you are proven that you are guilty.  I would never drive like that in any school zone however I will end up paying anyway so as to line the pockets of the city coffers.

My suggestion, if Spokane is so concerned about the children and this is not about the money,  is to copy the cross walk light by Gonzaga.  Not only does it light up, it strobes and not a single person speeds through it.  Again, this most likely will not occur since your article brags about how Spokane make $1 million on these lights. Why ruin a good thing.

Sincerely,

One irritated citizen

Another man had this to say:

Mr. Deshais,
 
Interesting article - but I was disappointed you didn't cover a few things:

1.  What is the take, in dollars and percent that the American Traffic Solutions company gets from the estimated $1.3 and $2.5 million dollar fines.   My understanding from other arrangements such as these is that their take is very high, and that is an important aspect.

2.  How many children were hit before and after this enforcement took place.  I believe it is none and none. No change in safety results.  Millions in fines for... ?  What was the problem to be solved? 

3.  How many children actually use the crosswalks?  I've asked the staff at the Finch crossing - some days it is ZERO.  Meaning, nothing but a speed trap, no children to protect.  Other days, two, three, four.  Millions in fines to "protect" a few children that take a few minutes to cross.  

Finally, a newcomer to the area had these thoughts:

I enjoyed your "School Speeders Pay Price" in today's Spokesman-Review. However, after reading the article I was left with a couple of questions.

For example, how much do the cameras cost? Are the cameras placed on a revenue share basis between American Traffic Solutions and the city and if so how much does the camera company make from the fines? How are the camera's tested for accuracy? What percentage of contested tickets are over-turned?

I would love to see a follow-up story on the behind the scenes issues associated with school and red-light cameras. You may have already done other camera stories that I missed.

As a new-comer to the Spokane area I really appreciate the fine work of the Spokesman.

Clearly, I didn't address some crucial areas for some of our readers.

Here's another shot.

American Traffic Solutions, which runs the city’s red-light camera program, also operates the school zone cameras. The contract between the Arizona-based company and the city runs through November 2018. The city currently pays the company about $625,000 a year to operate the cameras. The city pays $4,000 per month for each camera. The company does not share in the fines genearted by the cameras, which instead is split evenly between the Safe Routes to School program and the city's traffic-calming measures.

Children aren't often hit by cars in these areas, which everyone can agree is a good thing. But many kids walk to school and must cross busy streets, leading to city and school officials wanting these intersections to be as safe as possible.

Of the 30,000 students that attend Spokane Public Schools, about 7,000 take the bus. It’s not known how many of the remaining 23,000 kids walk, bike or drive – or are driven – to school. Longfellow has a student body of 560 students, and about 200 kids cross Nevada everyday, according to Meghan Anderson, Longfellow’s principal.

As for concerns about improper warning, Fagan noted that he wants some of the money generated by the cameras to pay for more police officers to patrol school zones so “people can actually see a police officer or vehicle or something else to give them pause and get them to slow down.” He added, however, “Aside from having a cheerleader standing underneath the ticket camera, we’ve done a pretty good job” of letting drivers know they’re entering a school zone with reduced speeds. 

Suggestions that drivers aren't properly warned, or that these cameras are inaccurate in their readings, definitely opens up new lines for questioning, but the idea that nobody is speeding is ludicrous. 

Before any cameras were installed, in February 2015, the city monitored Northwest Boulevard near Finch Elementary School and found that 84 percent of drivers heading southeast on the road during posted “slow” hours were clocked at more than 26 mph – 6 mph over the 20 mph speed. In one day, 438 people were found to be speeding. 

Near Longfellow, the ratio of speeders was lower, but the number of vehicles on North Nevada Street was, and is, much greater. Of the 1,189 northbound vehicles, 37 percent during one school day in November 2014 went more than 6 mph above the speed limit. About 1,200 trips were southbound, and 53 percent of those exceeded the speed limit.

Regardless, I think having a bright, strobe-like flashing light, similar to the pedestrian crossing near Gonzaga University and on Grand Boulevard on the east side of Manito Park, notifying drivers of the reduced speed is a great idea.

After all, similar programs in Washington have proven to be effective. Spokane police Officer Teresa Fuller has said speeds decreased by 30 percent in Bellevue during its first year of using the school zone cameras. Issaquah saw a 24 percent decrease, and Lynnwood had an 82 percent decrease in speed when the cameras were installed.




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Nicholas Deshais
Joined The Spokesman-Review in 2013. He is the urban issues reporter, covering transportation, housing, development and other issues affecting the city. He also writes the Getting There transportation column and The Dirt, a roundup of construction projects, new businesses and expansions. He previously covered Spokane City Hall.

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