Cameras cut speeding, but raise drivers’ ire
April 6, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Cameras installed along Southeast Second Avenue to deter speeders have cut the number of violations since the Issaquah Police Department started issuing citations last April.
The city recorded about 110 violations per day in May 2009 — about a month after speeders started to receive $124 fines for exceeding the 20 mph limit. By January 2010, the number of violations had fallen to about 40 per day — a drop of about 64 percent. The city released the data March 31.
Police issued 4,920 citations for violations caught by the cameras. The devices generated about $360,000 for the city.
Officials said the numbers showed the need for the cameras in a school zone packed with everyone from kindergartners to high-school seniors. Detractors said the cameras catch unknowing motorists and overcharge violators.
The city did not complete a formal cost analysis for the photo-enforcement program, although officials said the effort incurs significant expenses related to Issaquah Municipal Court, and the city finance and police departments. Police officers must review and then approve or reject each violation.
The city did not hire additional workers to handle the increased number of infractions.
Officials contracted with American Traffic Solutions, a Scottsdale, Ariz., company, to administer the cameras. The contract costs the city $4,750 per month.
Court Administrator Lynne Jacobs said the workload for court staffers ballooned after the city activated the cameras. The city judge and prosecutor also had to set aside time to handle camera-enforcement violations.
Police Chief Paul Ayers said the cameras meant increased tasks for officers, too, especially if police allow a few days’ worth of violations to accumulate.
Despite the added workload, “the cameras seem to be meeting the goal of slowing people down,” Ayers said.
Workers installed the cameras in March 2009 in a school zone near Clark Elementary School, Issaquah Middle School, Issaquah High School and Tiger Mountain Community High School. Dozens of lead-footed drivers received warnings for about a month, and then, in mid-April, the city started penalizing speeders.
The cameras operate from 7 a.m. – 4 p.m. on weekdays, and shut down after school and during school holidays. Officials touted the program as a way to free up traffic officers to patrol other areas.
No plans exist to expand the camera network beyond Southeast Second Avenue.
Most drivers caught speeding by the cameras paid the $124 fine, but hundreds of people challenged more than 900 citations in municipal court.
The largest group of challengers — representing 691 violations — requested and received mitigation hearings, where the driver admitted to the infraction and asked Judge N. Scott Stewart for a reduced fine. Another 225 said they did not commit the infraction and challenged the citation. About 10 percent of the violators failed to pay the fine; the court referred their information to a collection agency.
Jacobs said most of the challengers said they did not see speed limit or photo-enforcement signs, or the pole-mounted cameras. The court also heard another common excuse: “We have folks that say their car just can’t possibly go that slow,” she added.
The infraction is a noncriminal offense, similar to a parking ticket, and does not become part of a driver’s record.
Although Issaquah School District officials did not participate in the decision to install the cameras near Clark Elementary, spokeswoman Sara Niegowski said the district supports the photo-enforcement program as a safety tool.
“We have such a high density of students, staff, parents and community members going through there, especially at the start of school and the end of school,” she said.
A growing but controversial trend
Issaquah joined a network of local governments statewide and across the nation when the city activated the cameras last year.
State lawmakers passed legislation — later signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2005 — to allow cities to issue citations to drivers photographed violating red lights or speed limits.
Anne Teigen, a transportation policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the trend to add enforcement cameras continues to grow nationwide.
“Cameras have gone from red lights and speed, and they have now expanded to school zones, railroad crossings and toll roads,” Teigen said.
Studies conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on Arizona, Maryland and Washington, D.C., roadways showed a 70 percent to 95 percent decline in speeding in areas where enforcement cameras had been installed.
“When drivers know there’s a virtual guarantee that they’ll get a ticket, they slow down,” institute spokesman Russ Rader said.
Cameras caught Steve Sheehan, a Sammamish Plateau resident, speeding — three times within one week — on Southeast Second Avenue late last year. He said he did not see the signs posted to alert drivers to the cameras and, as a result, received fines totaling $372.
If a police officer had enforced the speed limit instead, Sheehan said he could have avoided the stretch of road. Sheehan said he did not see any children in the area when he received the tickets. Cameras caught him twice in the same day as he picked up poinsettias for a fundraiser, and again, he said, when he returned a week later to deliver a Christmas present to a teacher at Issaquah High School.
Sheehan, 60, contested the fines in a letter to municipal court and the court cut the penalty to $160. He said he plans to avoid the street in the future.
“If it’s purely for safety, why don’t we have it at all of our schools?” Sheehan said.
The cameras also riled other drivers as well, enough to prompt a class-action lawsuit last year. Attorneys said officials in Issaquah, Bellevue, Seattle and more than a dozen other Washington cities had overcharged drivers caught by speed and red-light cameras.
The lawsuit also accused officials of entering into deals with camera manufacturers in order to make money. The suit asked for cities to refund fines collected as a result of photo-enforced violations.
Attorneys said the state law intended for the photo-enforcement tickets to be treated as parking tickets. Instead, cities treated the photo-enforced infractions the same as violations caught by police officers.
The plaintiffs claimed state legislators intended for tickets to equal the amount of a parking ticket — about $20 — when lawmakers approved the law. The cities named in the lawsuit charge from $101 to $124 for photo-enforced tickets.
U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour in Seattle dismissed the lawsuit March 2.
“The code does not require a traffic-camera infraction to be treated like a parking infraction in every single respect,” he wrote in the dismissal order.
Seattle attorney David Breskin represented the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit. Although he said he respects Coughenour, the attorney said the judge did not interpret the law as legislators intended.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs appealed the decision last month.
“With all due respect to the judge, we think he got it wrong,” Breskin said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.
How cameras catch speeders
The photo-enforcement system — installed across from Clark Elementary School near the intersection of Second Avenue Southeast and Southeast Evans Street — uses roadway sensors to alert the cameras to speeding vehicles.
The system includes a pair of cameras to record video of the violation and snap a photo of a speeding vehicle’s rear license plate. Drivers receive the violation in the mail about 14 days after the incident.