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Originally published June 17, 2014 at 7:03 PM | Page modified June 17, 2014 at 10:08 PM

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Speed cameras: Driver teaches city a lesson about speeding in Seattle school zones

In an unusual case, a Seattle driver fought his $189 camera-generated speeding ticket and won, by arguing the city’s signs are too wordy.


Seattle Times transportation reporter

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poor illiterate attorney couldn't make out the sign with two extra words. Classic case of getting off on a... MORE
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The great majority of the 70,000 drivers nabbed for speeding by Seattle’s school-zone cameras have paid all or some of the $189 fine.

Joe Hunt chose instead to fight. And he won.

The Ballard resident didn’t claim he wasn’t speeding.

He focused instead on the sign. His search of state law led him to the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, where he found his defense: The sign, next to Broadview-Thomson Elementary, contains two words too many.

King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Heller dismissed the infraction.

The sign, along Greenwood Avenue North next to North 130th Street, said a 20 mph speed limit takes effect “WHEN LIGHTS ARE FLASHING OR WHEN CHILDREN ARE PRESENT,” in 2-inch block letters.

Hunt, a domestic-law attorney, found a diagram in the manual that prescribes the shorter phrase “WHEN FLASHING.”

He argued the two extra words “LIGHTS ARE” make the sign harder to read, and as a result, diminish the chance that a driver would slow down before reaching the school zone. Washington state law requires automated-camera zones to comply with the manual.

City Traffic Engineer Dongho Chang said crews will replace 40 signs by the start of school in September, at a yet-undetermined cost. They will read simply, “WHEN FLASHING.”

Hunt said he’s glad his challenge prodded the city to respond.

Still, there are other problems, he said — in his opinion, the school zone’s yellow lights are obscured by utility poles and by support poles for traffic lights.

“If the goal is to enhance safety, every effort should be made to make the signs as visible as possible,” he said.

Advance warning signs are required before such cameras, and the Broadview-Thomson school zone has them.

But the northbound advance sign, three blocks before 130th, can be hard to notice because it stands 19 feet to the right of the four-lane, 35 mph Greenwood corridor.

It also doesn’t list the upcoming 20 mph speed, which the manual says a sign should do wherever the school-zone speed drops more than 10 mph below the standard speed.

Hunt was ticketed while traveling 32 mph at 8:11 a.m. Feb. 21, 2013, according to the citation. He was on a trip north to visit his father in Edmonds.

His Municipal Court record in Seattle since 2000 shows one dismissed charge of running a stop sign.

“Worth the effort”

School-zone crackdowns are part of a broader pedestrian-safety campaign spanning the Nickels, McGinn and Murray mayoral administrations.

A person hit by a vehicle traveling 30 mph has a 55 percent chance of survival, but at 20 mph the odds improve to 95 percent, according to the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center in Seattle.

Seattle ranked No. 2 in pedestrian and bike safety in a recent national survey. There were 220 injury crashes and eight deaths involving pedestrians in 2012, a city report says.

Speed cameras went up at Broadview-Thomson in November 2012 (and warnings were issued the first few weeks) along with Olympic View, Gatewood and Thurgood Marshall elementaries.

This fall, five more school zones will get them, at Roxhill Elementary, Holy Family School, Dearborn Park Elementary, Eckstein Middle School and Bailey Gatzert Elementary.

Fixed school-zone cameras resulted in 47,621 speeding citations last year at the four schools, and close to 3,000 more were generated by van-mounted cameras.

Tabulations by camera vendor American Traffic Solutions (ATS) say the fixed cameras triggered an average 43 tickets per school per school day in January 2013, but that declined to 27 tickets a day in January 2014 — indicating a trend toward safer behavior, the company says.

Experience in other states suggests the cameras reduce collisions by one-fifth to one-fourth, said Jim Curtin, city traffic-safety coordinator. “They’re well worth the effort,” he said.

The $189 school-zone penalty is the same amount as if someone were stopped by a police officer, except that camera-generated tickets don’t go on one’s driving record for insurance purposes. (Most traffic offenses cost $124, while speeding ranges from $113 to $411 based on severity. The costliest ticket in Seattle is $1,062 for obstructing an ambulance.)

School-zone speed cameras brought the city $6.9 million last year — far more than expected. Seattle’s 2014 budget anticipates $8.6 million.

About $1.5 million covers court, police and camera costs, including $38,000 a month to Arizona-based ATS.

That leaves $7.1 million earmarked for sidewalks, bicycling, and education.

One of a kind

Hunt, who had lost his case in Municipal Court, is the only motorist to challenge the sign wording in Superior Court, said Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s office.

Nationally, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) hasn’t heard of any similar wording disputes, said spokesman Neil Gaffney.

Chang said the signs met federal standards when installed, several years ago. Many of the flashing lights and school-zone signs were installed before the cameras were added. Signs installed since 2012, in both camera and noncamera school zones, say “WHEN FLASHING.”

“Shorter language is easier to comprehend,” said Gaffney. However, the FHWA doesn’t require school-zone signs to be replaced immediately, unless there’s a known safety hazard, he said.

Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Sheridan commented:

“The bottom line remains this — drivers who speed in school zones put children at risk. Whether or not this citation was upheld, nothing makes endangering children by speeding in a school zone right.”

The National Motorists Association, a Wisconsin-based group that opposes camera enforcement, hasn’t heard of similar cases.

More commonly, drivers challenge tickets by arguing children weren’t present, said John Bowman, communications director. In some states, motorists have been cited long after the students went home, he said.

Less than 5 percent of drivers contest camera tickets, he said, because fines in most states are too low to bother fighting them.

In Seattle, at least 15 percent of those cited through school-zone cameras have tried to get their fine reduced or dismissed.

Seattle Municipal Court finally dismissed Hunt’s ticket Friday, as a result of the higher-court ruling.

But taking the case to Superior Court required extra time and money.

Hunt calculated that his court-filing fees, transcription costs and paperwork to beat the $189 ticket cost him $536.

Pay or fight?
Most drivers ticketed through school-zone cameras pay some or all the $189 fine, but at least 15 percent try to get it reduced or dismissed. Seattle Municipal Court records processed in 2013 show:
Total cases:50,560
Paid in full, uncontested:31,466
Defaulted (went unpaid) 7,941
Full or partial payment after a challenge or mitigation6,795
Pending2,040
Canceled 1,463
Dismissed as “not committed”855
Source: Seattle Municipal Court

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom



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