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What $189 speeding tickets can buy

Guest Opinion: Going fast in a school zone is a no-no. But when the fine hits $189 (for doing 26 mph!) you have to wonder where exactly that money is going?
Gotcha! Traffic cams are moneymaking machines.

Gotcha! Traffic cams are moneymaking machines. Credit: Dave Dugdale/Flickr

Last week, I went downtown to fight a speeding ticket. Or, really, to complain about a speeding ticket, because the city had video of me speeding and I was very unlikely to get it overturned. It was one of those fixed school zone cameras, and it had caught me going 26 miles per hour in a 20 mile per hour zone. The cost? $189.

Now, it’s hard to complain about getting a ticket for speeding in a school zone, since that’s clearly a bad thing to do, but I do question whether the punishment fits the crime. $189 for going 26 mph?

I knew how the trip to downtown would go. I would stand in a couple of long lines, stare at drab government walls and leave feeling demoralized and dissatisfied. At some point I probably would get scolded. A veteran of visiting big city government buildings, I knew I needed to clear a lot of time and bring a good book.

The hearing was in Seattle’s Justice Center, one of the city’s newer government buildings. I passed through the metal detector and immediately saw an area labeled Customer Service with ropes outlining a serpentine queue. I took note because I assumed this would be a place where I would do a lot of my penance. I took the elevator, surprisingly nice, with stainless steels walls and terrazzo floors, up to the second floor where I was to have my hearing. I sat down at a computer terminal where, I was told, I was could actually watch myself committing the infraction.

This is where things got weird.

After a minute of fumbling through my papers to find a video access code, a nearby voice offered help. I had so little expected assistance that I thought she was talking to someone else. The woman, an employee behind a nearby desk, confirmed that she was indeed offering help, and commiserated with me over receiving a raft of court papers with a lot of numbers but not the numbers I needed.

She found my number, and offered to come out from behind her desk to enter it in for me (since the number was so long)! This woman was incredibly nice. She even checked the time, concerned that we might not finish before my hearing started. This seemed odd, because it was 2:03, and my hearing was scheduled for 2:00. Clearly I had another 45 minutes of waiting ahead.

Scarcely had I settled down in a chair when a man appeared in a doorway and called my name. We walked down a long hallway, nice as any corporate headquarters, and into an office with blonde wood chairs and ample southern exposure. He offered me a seat. It turned out he was, in fact, the magistrate.

Judge Chung had a friendly, patient smile. I delivered my rehearsed bit about social justice and the fairness of a $189 ticket for going 26 mph, and we had a short discussion. He smiled serenely and asked if I had been cited for speeding before. I was busted. Last October I got a ticket, at the same location, for going 28 miles per hour.

I asked Judge Chung whether he would sanction a ticket for traveling, say, 22 mph in a 20 mph zone. He explained that 26 mph is usually the lowest speed for which he sees tickets being issued. I could see that I was getting nowhere, so we wrapped it up. He agreed to drop my fee to $100. I walked out of the courtroom at 2:09 p.m.

On my way out, I started to take note of just how nice the building and its interior are. In fact, the Seattle Justice Center is more like a Four Seasons hotel than a government building. There’s artwork on the walls, cherry wood ceilings, a green roof terrace and impressive views (through double-paned glass) of sparkling Elliott Bay.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 8:44 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm amazed speeding tickets aren't much larger in general.

This country is safety obsessed in so many ways, like putting beepers on things. But car accidents kill tens of thousands per year, and much of this is due to speeding, as well as running red lights and so on.

Driving a deadly object at a deadly speed, in a school zone no less? This jerk deserves far worse.

mhays

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 9:43 a.m. Inappropriate


If a $189 speeding ticket can buy government a view, what can a half-off discount ($500 instead of $1,000 if you pay your fine in the next 30 days) for violating the air during a burn ban purchase?

According to a Public Disclosure Request by me (since I too am going to court and am marshaling my defense), I found that the 2011/12 winter season of burn bans totaled 19 days, 12 inspectors, four counties, and 145 citations out of 182 observations in just the first burn ban (11/25-11/28), an 80-percent success rate. The second burn ban, 12/30/12 to 1/3/13 netted 585 smoke observations which remained to be processed for violations when the update was posted January 14, 2013 but if 80-percent held true, 468 would be violations.

How many of the 613 total violations were settled amicably without fines paid; the number who accepted the kind offer from Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA) and paid the $500 citation; and the likely few (like me) who protested the $1,000 civil penalty in court are all unknown but a generously liberal estimate suggests a ballpark figure perhaps approaching $300,000 collected by the PSCAA.

In Lakewood, where I find myself in trouble with the law, the five Burn Ban Patrol members – who double as Police Department personnel during their day jobs - basically divide a $25,000 pot, so if the 12 inspectors over four counties in the 2011/12 season are similarly compensated, $60,000 amounts to the PSCAA’s expenses producing a net of $240,000.

In just one winter season.

Of course if the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency was indeed about clean air in Puget Sound, at least in the area of Enhanced Enforcement, a 48-hour turn-around by virtue of a courtesy phone call to identified violators to stop what they were doing - many of them likely doing so inadvertently – would, estimating conservatively, actually end the matter right then and there.

But then such a common sense approach to immediately addressing pollutants in the air to be never seen again would also likely mean a significant amount of money not to be seen again either by neither the PSCAA or its enforcers.

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, you poor thing... You broke the law, but I suppose we should just ask you nicely not to do it again, right? Of course, you already admitted above that this isn't the first time you've BROKEN THE LAW, and your fine was reduced because you turned up to contest it.

Do you understand that the fine is meant to deter people from committing the crime? Maybe next time you'll get charged more. Maybe it should be much MORE than $189. Or maybe you would just prefer that we ticket and fine "bad people" who do "bad things" that you don't like?

Mickymse

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 12:07 p.m. Inappropriate

If you had the time to contest your second speeding ticket in that location, then you probably have enough time to slow your car down in a school zone. Thanks for contributing $100 to the general fund (sounds like you can afford it), I hope it has the desired effect on your driving choices.

joolian

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 12:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, this is what the school zone camera money is going to: http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2013/09/05/city-will-invest-14-8m-from-school-zone-speed-cameras-into-safe-routes-to-school/

Increase school zone safety by installing cameras, then use that money to build permanent school zone safety projects. Seems like a great idea to me.

tfooq

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 1:26 p.m. Inappropriate

That and encouraging kids to bike/walk to school has both health and education benefits as the exercise seems to improve scholastic performance.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 12:17 p.m. Inappropriate

We don't enforce this stuff more because a lot of voters are self-centered assholes like the writer. Politicians are afraid to annoy any sizeable demographic that might otherwise be available.

mhays

Posted Thu, Jul 31, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

The self centered assholes in Seattle are the "progressive" bicyclists who obstruct traffic. The more of you who meet the consequences of your recklessness, the better.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 1:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks tfooq, that's what I vaguely remembered but couldn't find. Another article said that revenue from these went to the general fund. Maybe some journalism could have happened at some point during the writing and editing phase.

I'm having trouble getting this piece out of my craw, for some irrational reason. So many questions linger ...

What was the "social justice" argument the author rehearsed, wherein a PR consultant should not have to pay a ticket for a repeat offense. I'm just not sure that's what "social justice" means.

How much did it cost the city to hold this hearing? Kind of suspect it was more than $100, given magistrate salaries, etc. So did we the city end up losing money on this offense?

Is this the sort of public response a "communications consultant" would recommend to a client who got two tickets in one year for speeding in a school zone? I'm not sure it helped the author's brand.

joolian

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 1:38 p.m. Inappropriate

"Going fast in a school zone is a no-no. But when the fine hits $189 (for doing 26 mph!) you have to wonder where exactly that money is going?"

That money is going to save the lives of children attending school. It's to slow down a$$hats like this author who think it's only 6 or 8 MPH over the posted limit, what's the problem?

When it's your child hit by a car speeding through an area congested by children you'll understand.

No children of your own? That's what I figured!

elbowman

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 4:14 p.m. Inappropriate

If the powers that be want to slow traffic past schools to a crawl, why not just install roundabouts in front of the schools? No revenue in that, huh?

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 7 p.m. Inappropriate

One thing which might help is STRIPE the street so that the driver can see where the school zone starts.
The signs are unclear.

Posted Thu, Jul 31, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

I have a friend in Kent who has been trying to get a signal at the crossing from her neighborhood to the school which goes across a really busy arterial. They put in the cameras and now they have the money to go forward with the signal. Woo Hoo.

In Seattle, as noted above, the camera revenues are directly tied to improvements for pedestrian and bicycle access to schools. Ironically, one hopes there are less infractions, but I suppose if we get the safety features we will have accomplished our goals.

A ticket was recently contested and thrown out because there are too many words on those signs. While I think anyone who doesn't slow way down near a school during school hours should pay the fine and slow down in future, the point made is valid. Road signs have to be short and sweet or they become a distraction on the one hand or are ignored on the other hand.

I have a major complaint to add to the fact of too many words. The instructions are too ambiguous. The signs say when light flashing or children are present. First of all, I do not always SEE the sign. I do not happen to know where all the schools are. The sign might have low hanging branches hanging over part of it. Secondly, so what the heck is the times when children are present? Children could be present anytime.

Either just make it 20MPH when lights are flashing with a huge yellow sign which means we will 'see' it, or make it 20MPH all the time. Alternatively, the language could state specific hours of the day, but that would probably be too many words. Too many words and ambiguous wording is dangerous when we want people to just register the message and SLOOOOOWWWWW down.

Posted Thu, Jul 31, 1:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't worry. Soon enough, the "progressives" are going to campaign to make all speed limits 20 miles an hour.

NotFan

Posted Mon, Aug 4, 9:17 a.m. Inappropriate

They won't have to. It's already nearly impossible to go faster than that in many places what with lane removals for buses and bicycles and more and more people who are supposed to use said buses and bicycles, and trains, but who strangely enough DRIVE congesting every inch of roadway.

mspat

Posted Mon, Aug 4, 12:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, it's all the bicyclists fault that this person sped through a school zone.

Oh look! Another battle won against cars:
http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2024235272_rightturnbanxml.html

The war on cars is over. The cars lost.

To quote Willy Wonka, "You get nothing. You lose! Good day, sir!"

jeffro

Posted Thu, Aug 7, 6:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Satisfaction for saving $89 in fines, but taking perhaps a few hours - or a day - off from work to get that. Evidently, it was worth it for the author.

One of my many beefs for the cameras is that one doesn't know at what speed they are set to trigger, and there doesn't seem to be a standard, or that information is kept secret in the name of transparency (not!). Also, the jurisdictions have free reign as to when to use them. For instance, when the City of Lake Forest Park put theirs in, they were reportedly operating 24 hours a day(!), per a councilmember at the time. After numerous complaints, that was reduced to a couple of hours each weekday, without accounting for when school was in session. After still more complaints, the times of operation were changed to when students were ordinarily in the vicinity, and flashing lights were evidence of when this was so. This councilmember laughed it off when telling this tale and how much money the cameras were still making relative to the cost, how many tickets they'd need to break even, etc., and he never said whether those who got ticketed outside of ordinary school hours received refunds or not. I doubt it. However, ironically, the councilmember was up for re-election, and lost, which was no surprise given his callous attitude.

The idea behind the school zone cameras is to get people to slow down and to improve the safety of those walking in that vicinity, not to generate revenue. If everybody is following the law, and the jurisdiction got zero revenue, then the cost of the cameras is an investment in safety that the city leaders then decide whether is worth it or not.

bricsa

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