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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Police aim to slow drivers near schools

Coeur d’Alene Police Officer Nick Knoll watches for speeders near Lakes Middle School in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Coeur d’Alene Police Officer Nick Knoll watches for speeders near Lakes Middle School in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Coeur d’Alene police Officer Nick Knoll parked across the street from Lakes Middle School and lowered the front windows of his patrol car, looking for lead-footed drivers.

Knoll pointed a laser detector at passing cars to get an instant read on their speeds. It didn’t take long.

“Here we go, there’s a 35” – a driver going 15 miles over the school zone speed limit as students are arriving at the school.

Knoll pulled over a woman with a kid in her car, chatted with her briefly and returned to scan her driver’s license into his computer and print out a $156.50 speeding ticket.

“She thought the speed limit was a 25 mph school zone,” Knoll said. “And she’s running late today.”

The next speeder he cited – a schoolteacher with two kids in the back seat – told him she was “zoning out” and didn’t see the flashing light. Knoll issued another ticket and cautioned her to “drive safely.”

Disregarding the yellow signs and flashing signals, drivers routinely zoom through school zones at 10, 15, even 20 miles over the limit. Reminding them to slow down near schools is a never-ending chore for traffic enforcement teams.

Knoll, one of three traffic officers in Coeur d’Alene, tickets drivers who are 10 miles an hour or more over the limit. “I’d say that’s pretty excessive in a school zone,” he said.

Sometimes drivers will argue they should get a warning instead. Knoll tells them, “If those were your kids, how fast would you want people be allowed to drive?”

Many violators just aren’t paying attention, and phones are typically the reason, he said.

“If they’re talking on their phone they’re probably distracted and there’s a good chance they miss the flashing light,” Knoll said.

Near the high schools, students tend to be the typical speeders, especially when school gets out, he said. “For some reason they’re more in a hurry to get away from school than to get to it.”

The Spokane Police Department has four officers assigned to traffic enforcement, with an emphasis on school zone safety between 8 and 9 a.m. and after school from 2:45 to 3:15 p.m. The speed limit is 20 mph in all school zones in Washington.

There’s a lot of ground to cover. Counting public and private schools, the city has about 60 school zones.

“We try to focus a lot of our work on the school areas that are next to arterials,” said Spokane police Sgt. John Gately, a traffic team supervisor.

“We encourage them to move around as much as possible,” Gately said.

Officers also spend extra time in places where police see a rash of crashes.

Having police visible around schools is a big deterrent to speeding, he said.

“When you make a traffic stop, the visual of people seeing the emergency lights on in the school zone is a huge reminder to folks that the school zones are active – slow down,” he said.

“The goal isn’t to give the tickets. The goal is to reduce the speed and the danger toward the children,” Gately said.

Starting this fall the city of Spokane will add a new tool to crack down on school zone speeders. Automated cameras, much like the city’s red-light cameras, are going up at two schools where speeding and car wrecks are most problematic.

The cameras – at Finch Elementary near Northwest Boulevard and Longfellow Elementary on North Nevada Street – will start operating Nov. 1 during the times the flashing school zone beacons warn drivers to slow to 20 mph.

Violators will be mailed warnings during the first month. Tickets will begin starting Dec. 1. Fines range from $189 to $784, depending on the speed. A driver going 32 in a 20 mph zone will get a $271 citation.

Traffic studies showed the most violations and the highest speeds were morning commuters headed east toward downtown on Northwest and south on Nevada, said Spokane police Officer Teresa Fuller, who is overseeing the project.

“They’re rushing to get to work or to school,” Fuller said.

A third school, Stevens Elementary on East Mission Avenue, will be equipped with the speed cameras next spring.

“We’ve had a couple of kids hit around that school in the last several years,” including a student crossing guard struck by a driver who was under the influence, Fuller said.

In Coeur d’Alene, retiree Stan Brixen serves as a crossing guard in front of Bryan Elementary School on Harrison Avenue, a busy east-west route in the Midtown neighborhood.

“It’s frustrating,” he said of the speeders he sees as young children cross the street. “Why are they in such a hurry all the time?”

I-90 lane reduction

On Tuesday, Interstate 90 westbound will be reduced to two lanes in the vicinity of the Latah Creek bridge for bridge inspection from 9 a.m. to about 3:30 p.m.

Around the county

In Spokane County, construction on Old Trails Road is now finished and the road is open to traffic.

The Christensen Road Bridge project is completed and the road is open.

Wetland work is underway on the Thomas Mallen wetland near Fish Lake.

Ditch and culvert cleaning will take place on Cheney-Plaza and Fruitvale roads. Fruitvale Road is also getting more gravel.

Repair work is planned for Saltese Lake, Henry and Quinimose roads.

Sweeping will be underway on Farwell, Hawthorne, Midway and Hatch roads and Market Street.

Guardrail work is planned for Tallman, Charles and Blanchard roads and Dartford Drive.

Reporter Mike Prager contributed to this report.

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