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Wednesday, July 8, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Colfax Well-Known As One Big Speed Trap Ambulance Was Stopped, But City Says Reputation A Bum Rap

Eric Sorensen Staff writer

The sign at the south edge of town lays claim to this being the dry pea and lentil capital of the world.

But sitting at the spot where wary drivers slow to a 25 mph crawl, the sign also could boast of Colfax being one of America’s biggest speed traps.

It’s a widespread reputation, sealed in 1987 when a city officer issued a ticket to an ambulance driver, and wire news services spread the story across the nation.

And it’s a bum rap, say city officials, who argue they never ticket drivers going less than 35 mph in a 25 mph zone. The ambulance was going 56 mph, adds Police Chief Barney Buckley, and the citation was upheld in court.

“That’s a real myth that says you can go 2 (mph) over and get a ticket,” he said.

Those tickets police do issue, he said, are the result of local citizens weary of sideswiped car doors and crosswalks made treacherous by the 12,000 cars passing through each day on U.S. Highway 195. The route is Whitman County’s main northsouth highway and the town’s Main Street.

“One of the reasons I moved to Colfax is I like 25 miles an hour,” said Lars Sjostrand. “… This is my speed.”

The speed-trap reputation is due to be tested in court as a City Council member from Pullman challenges a ticket for going 38 mph in a 25 mph zone last March.

Armed with a sizable legal squad - and burdened with a lengthy driving record - Ron Wachter has assembled an impressive database that characterizes just what type of speed trap Colfax is - or isn’t.

In one respect, his figures put the lie to the speed-trap myth. Over the last five years, city police have issued an average of only one ticket every three days.

But Wachter contends the city is mining drivers at a curve on the south end of town, where he says the speed limit should be higher.

“You can drive through town at 35 miles an hour and nobody’ll ever bother you,” he said, “and you always get nailed at that corner. Ninety percent of the tickets are issued on that south corner.”

Wachter’s figures, compiled by a University of Idaho law intern, also show a steady rise in the revenue raised from traffic tickets. However, that reflects an increase in fines as set by the state and increased enforcement of more expensive high-speed infractions.

The average number of tickets issued shot up in March, when citizen complaints prompted the city to step up its traffic enforcement and issue 100 citations that month. Most were for speeding, but Buckley said police also watched for crosswalk violations and a surprising number of red light violations.

“People think they’re in Spokane, I guess,” he said, alluding to the Lilac City’s reputation as a red-light-running town.

Wachter’s own estimate that 90 percent of the tickets are issued at the south end of town is off the mark, according to his own figures. The figure is 66 percent.

Wachter insisted his case is unrelated to three other tickets he has received in the past 12 months, including one for going 74 mph in Franklin County.

“They aren’t heavy speeding tickets,” he said. “You go in the country, you drive that fast.”

For the record, the state Traffic Safety Commission disagrees.

And heavy or not, Wachter’s most recent Colfax ticket - he received another in 1992 - is enough to earn him a “driver awareness interview” with state motor vehicle officials. Four moving violations in a year also put drivers on a yearlong “conditional status” in which their licenses are suspended a month if they speed two more times.

Wachter’s case aside, city officials hope a $4 million Main Street project, which includes widening the four traffic lanes, at least will make downtown a safer place to be. Setting the strip’s three traffic lights to change only for crossing motorists or pedestrians also should cut down on lead-footed signal racers, said Myrt Webb, city administrator.

“There are some people that, as they make that first one, they get on it to make that third one.”

But for now, Webb seems resigned to life in a reputed Ticketville.

“Do we have that reputation?” he said. “Yes, I’ve heard it. Is it changing? Probably not.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Colfax’s speeding fines

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