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Jesse Jones Investigates School Zone Speed Cameras


School zones are necessary to protect children. One Lakewood school zone traffic enforcement camera is doing its job, but it also has some drivers calling it a speed trap.

“I was like, that’s a flashing school light,” said Jessica Thomkins

Then came the flash, said Thomkins, and she knew she’d been caught by the speed camera.

“I couldn’t get down to 20mph,” said Neeve Willows

Willows, Thomkins and other commuters said a school zone speed camera in Lakewood is unfair.

“I feel it’s entrapment for sure,” said Jeff Baltz.

“That flashing light may as well be flashing money signs,” said Willows.

The school zone in question is on Steilacoom Boulevard in Lakewood.

Drivers have to go from 35mph to 20mph, quickly.

“If I was going 35mph, and saw this I would not have been able to get my speed down,” said Willows.

Willows is one of the 6,500 infractions at that school zone over the past school year. She claims the signage showing its photo enforced is inadequate.

“The first sign that I got, that there was a school zone, was very close. It was a matter of feet,” said Willows.

Willows means the sign notifying drivers of a speed camera was very close to the camera itself.

How close is it? 88 feet.

And the 20mph sign is after the camera.

“So you are notified of the speed after you have already got to the camera,” said Willows. “Yeah, it’s again like I said. It’s designed to be a speed trap.”

“So to the argument that it’s a trap. It’s not a trap,” said Brynn Grimley from the City of Lakewood

Grimley says drivers have plenty of notice to slow down before the camera.

“The flashing yellow sign should be enough to warn them they need to slow down,” said Grimley.

Grimley added there’s no state law covering minimum distances between photo enforced signs and cameras.

“We could just put that photo warning sign on the school zone sign itself, and that would be the first-time people see this is photo enforced.”

So, I went and did some measuring. I wanted to discover the distances other communities used to space their signs. We picked a few spots at random.

Seattle at SW Roxbury -517 feet to the camera.

Lake Forest Park -769 feet to the camera.

Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood- 920 feet to the camera.

But several states do have distance standards. Louisiana is 250 feet to the location of the system, and it’s 300 feet in Colorado and Arizona.

I asked Grimley why other states mandate longer distances between the warning sign and camera.

“You’d have to ask those states for their reasoning for why they did it. I mean, again, we’re a city. We don’t make the traffic laws that our state conforms to,” said Grimley.

Challenge accepted. I rolled down to Beaverton, Oregon.

Oregon state law says that the photo enforced notification must be a minimum of 300 feet before the camera.

In a mobile camera set up manned by a police officer, the sign was 365 feet.

Oregon State Representative Jeff Reardon wrote the state’s photo enforced law.

“Think of the old days where you had the sheriff hiding behind the billboard. This is not that system. you know, were not trying to give tickets,” said Rep. Reardon.

The City of Lakewood has a couple of points. The school zone is absolutely legal. And drivers should be able to see the flashing sign.

“I guess theoretically you could slam on your breaks,” said Grimley. “But most people slow when they see the 20. They know it’s coming, so they hit 20 by the time they hit the sign. Which is the law.”

What happens if you are caught in the flow of traffic, and you have to hit the brakes quickly?

I talked with Nate Tennis, a professional rally car instructor at Dirtfish in North Bend.

The goal was to find out what it takes to drop from 35 to 20 miles an hour.

“On a scale of one to ten-the way we rate our brake pressure – one being very, very light and ten being very hard, as hard as you can hit the brakes. That’s a seven. That’s pretty good breaking right there,” said Tennis. “So, this is not performance breaking, but it’s close to it.”

I also decided to dig into the money. The City of Lakewood does not have a breakdown of how much each of its red-light cameras pulls in. But altogether, after losing money for years, last year Lakewood made a $123,000 profit.

Do you think this is about kids safety? “I do not,” said Thomkins.

We caught up with Jessica Thomkins in court. She’s was facing a $101 infraction. We were at the scene-when she got caught going 28mph in a 20.

“So when that happened I thought it must be some mistake,” said Thomkins.

The City of Lakewood has made no change to its signage and there are no plans to do so.

Drivers say they must navigate the distance between what is the law, and what is right.

The net revenues from all cameras in Lakewood will grow from $123,000 last year to an expected $310,000 this year.

There have only been a handful of accidents at or near that intersection during school hours since the camera went up in 2015. I haven’t seen enough data to make any conclusions one way or another.

Just to be clear- school zones are necessary.

But Representative Reardon believes the earlier you tell drivers of the camera, the sooner they’ll slow down.

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