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Updated Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 01:01 AM

New cameras to snap Seattle school-zone speeders

By Alexa Vaughn
Seattle Times staff reporter

Debra Carlisle says she always drives carefully around schools like Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Seattle's Judkins Park neighborhood, where her 9-year-old grandson attends fourth grade.

But she admits newly installed speed cameras near Seattle schools such as her grandson's might make her a tad more careful.

Starting Monday, Nov. 26, $189 tickets will be automatically mailed to registered owners of vehicles caught speeding past cameras installed in four Seattle school zones. Those zones are near Broadview-Thomson K-8 School, Thurgood Marshall Elementary, Olympic View Elementary and Gatewood Elementary.

The new, fixed cameras — a pilot project — have freed up a speed-enforcement van that has been frequently parked near Gatewood Elementary. The police-officer-operated van uses radar and photos to gauge drivers' speed. School-zone speeding tickets cost the same whether from a live officer or a speed camera, said Greg Doss, a strategic adviser for the Seattle Police Department.

"That's kind of harsh," Carlisle said at first of the automatic ticketing program. But then she looked at the playful fourth-grader she'd just picked up from school. "Because of kids like him, though, I'll be really glad if people slow it down in the area."

Slowing down drivers while children are walking to and from school is exactly the goal behind the camera installations on busy streets such as Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, Doss said.

Enforcing school-zone speed limits in person as consistently as the cameras will, Doss said, would require assigning at least four officers in each area twice a day — definitely not in the Police Department's budget.

Before setting up the new speed cameras, the department coordinated with the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) last year to analyze which school zones could benefit most, Doss said. Despite the installation of more than 50 sets of flashing yellow beacons in school zones across the city, speeding was a persistent problem around several schools. Eventually four areas were chosen for the speed cameras.

School principals were contacted about the pilot program and supportive of it, according to police spokesman Jeff Kappel.

Since Nov. 1, warning citations have been mailed when there are school-zone speed violations, to help spread the word about the cameras before too many drivers face the hefty fines, Doss said.

Each camera is set up in such a way that it won't catch speeding drivers unless the school-zone beacon is flashing. SDOT programs the beacons to flash during hours children in an area are mostly likely to be walking to and from school, Doss said.

Sensors installed at two points on the roadway measure drivers' speed. If a vehicle exceeds 20 mph — the speed limit when school children are present — the camera shoots a picture of the license plate, Doss said. He did not know whether some leniency would be shown for those driving only slightly above the limit.

Because the ticket is mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle, people who share a car may end up in disagreement over who needs to pay up, especially because of this: Under city legislation, traffic cameras are allowed to photograph only license plates, not drivers' faces.

The Seattle Police Department is overseeing the speed-camera project now, but Doss said the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company American Traffic Solutions (ATS) managed the camera installations, maintains the company-owned devices, and mails tickets to speeding drivers. An SPD officer will check each citation before the company mails the ticket, he said.

Doss said revenue from the speeding tickets will go into the city's general fund. A city finance-department document estimates the speed-camera pilot project would generate about $370,000 in net revenue for the city, but it does not say over what period of time.

Some cities have made significantly more than that from a single speed camera: One in Washington, D.C., brought in $11.6 million in under two years, according to The Washington Post.

Seattle's 2012 budget allotted $560,750 for automated traffic-enforcement pilot programs, which include not only the school-zone speed cameras but also more than 30 red-light cameras, which also are operated by ATS. City Council legislation requires that money the city pays to traffic-safety-camera vendors or manufacturers be based only on the value of equipment and services, not on any revenue generated from traffic fines.

ATS has contracts with cities across the country for red-light cameras and speed cameras. Residents in some cities have strongly opposed automated surveillance, contending that the devices are inaccurate and that cities use them mostly to generate revenue. In 2010, for instance, 71 percent of Mukilteo voters approved severe restrictions on how much drivers would be fined if nailed by a traffic-safety camera, along with restrictions on the approval process for such cameras.

The state Supreme Court invalidated local initiatives like Mukilteo's earlier this year, however, saying city and county councils have "exclusive power" to decide whether to use the traffic-safety cameras. The Mukilteo City Council ended up banning the cameras anyway.

Doss said potential complaints about issues such as camera accuracy and proper signage were carefully considered before the speed cameras were installed in Seattle. As drivers approach each of the school zones, there's a warning sign. On Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, the sign reads, "School speed zone photo enforced ahead," with a picture of a camera.

"By the time you've seen the sign, you have plenty of time to slow down as you come up on the school zone and see the flashing lights," Doss said.

The speed-camera pilot project is scheduled to end June 30, 2013. The City Council is to release a report by June 7 detailing how many accidents and infractions have been reported in the area of each camera, before deciding whether to extend the program or approve additional speed cameras.

If the speed-camera trial goes anything like the red-light camera pilot project in 2006, the devices could be around for a while. The number of red-light cameras in Seattle has expanded from an initial six to more than 30 this year, according to city documents.

Public safety, not city revenue, would be the main reason for installing more speed cameras, said City Council Transportation Committee Chairman Tom Rasmussen.

"If they prove to be effective in reducing speed and accidents, we should seriously consider adding cameras to other schools," he said. "We think it can be one tool to help improve safety patrolling in school zones, so we've been eager to have it employed."

Material from The Seattle Times archives was used in this report.

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.


ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A "photo enforced" sign on Martin Luther King Jr. Way North warns motorists to slow down or trigger a speed camera. Fines will start the week after Thanksgiving.








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