April 6, 2014 in City

City Council considers traffic cameras for school zones

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Up for debate

A spirited debate is expected when City Council members begin discussing whether to proceed with a pilot test of the school-zone technology. The council was divided 5-2 over whether to ask that the pilot project be developed.

Motorists speeding through school zones could be the next target of Spokane’s push into automated traffic enforcement cameras.

With statistics suggesting red-light cameras have helped improve safety at intersections, while also hauling in millions of dollars in fines, Spokane now wants to know more about automated speed cameras that state lawmakers have authorized for use in school and road construction zones. Seattle and Tacoma already are using them.

“We want to make sure people are driving a safe speed,” said Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder, who spearheaded a council request to have the police department design a potential pilot project for consideration later this year. “This would give us another enforcement tool.”

Seattle’s speed cameras took in about $15 million in the first year, though city officials told state lawmakers that the violation rates quickly drop off after the first few months as motorists adjust their driving habits wherever the cameras are located. Violators face $189 fines, which can be challenged in court.

They are similar to red-light cameras, with tickets mailed to the registered owners of the vehicles after police officers review the photos and sign off on infractions. The enforcement zones are equipped either with automated radar guns or pressure plates installed in streets to measure each vehicle’s speed, with cameras snapping photos of the vehicle and its license plate when infractions are detected.

The same company Spokane contracts with for its red-light cameras, American Traffic Solutions, also offers speed cameras, though no decision has been made yet on whether to proceed with even a pilot project here.

“This was just a request that a pilot project be developed for consideration,” Snyder said. The city is looking at testing the technology in one Spokane school zone that has yet to be chosen.

A spirited debate is expected when council members begin discussing whether to proceed with the test. The council was divided 5-2 over whether to even ask that the pilot project be developed. Some said they’d want only warnings, rather than infractions, sent to motorists during the test period and cautioned that speed cameras represent a significant and likely controversial expansion of automated enforcement programs.

“This is not a photo red camera,” Councilman Steve Salvatori said. “It’s a radar gun … run by a robot.”

Councilman Mike Fagan said that while he understands the desire to promote safety, he’s seen nothing to indicate Spokane has a problem with accidents occurring in school zones across the city.

“I think if you’re going to gain public assistance for these programs, you’re going to have to show the public that there’s a need and be able to justify it,” Fagan said. “Otherwise the general public is going to see it as another money grab.”

Salvatori and Fagan both opposed the City Council resolution asking the police department to design a potential pilot project.

Spokane collected about $1.5 million in fines last year from its red-light cameras, with nearly $640,000 going to ATS, which supplies the cameras and operates the system under the city contract.

The fines also pay the salary and benefits of the Spokane police officer assigned to the enforcement effort, and cover $100,000 toward the cost of an additional traffic safety officer, still leaving more than $600,000 dedicated to neighborhood traffic safety improvements and other projects designed to boost public safety.

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