Traffic-camera lights, speeders and Kent

The Kent City Council conducted three town hall meetings over the last several months to provide the opportunity for residents to speak directly with their elected officials and to ask questions. Along with the constant visibility and availability of the mayor, it’s a great example of why having your local law enforcement answerable locally was one of founding father Thomas Jefferson’s best ideas.

As chief of police, I attended most of the town hall meetings. Most questions focused on street improvements, bike trails, and park amenities — exactly the kind of concerns you would expect from involved residents. Questions regarding traffic photo enforcement were also common. In addition, there have been some letters to the editor supporting or opposing the idea. This week I thought I’d provide some background on the issue and what we are doing.

Several cities around us, including Auburn and Renton, have installed photo-enforcement cameras at busy intersections or for speed in school zones. I started as sort of a cynic when it came to these systems, because I had some serious questions about their accuracy and their accountability to our department rather than the private company that installs them. After quite a bit of research, though, I have to say that most of those concerns have been alleviated.

The system takes not only digital photos of the offense, it also takes video that can be accessed and viewed not only by the officer approving the citation, but by the driver via the Internet with a personal code accessed on the citation itself. So, the driver can view the photos and the actual event. The same video can obviously be produced in court if the driver chooses to contest the charge. Pretty impressive and it really cuts down on the difference between perception and reality.

One of the other concerns about photo enforcement is the fact that profit-making companies are involved. While it is true that these companies are hired to install the equipment and process the violations, it is an officer from the department who actually views each offense and individually approves each ticket. The fines and court processes are the discretion of the city, not the company.

Through research, we have found that photo enforcement is not the holy grail of revenue. Some of the intersections with photo devices create more in traffic fines than they cost, but some do not. Revenue really is not, and should not, be a major factor in deciding whether to implement this technology.

So, what should be the factor? Most people talk about traffic safety, meaning fewer crashes at intersections. Some people feel that photo enforcement will result in more rear-end crashes, as people slam on their brakes to avoid a ticket. Most studies indicate that there is some overall reduction in traffic crashes at intersections with photo enforcement, including Auburn’s experience locally.

As I have been discussing this issue with residents, however, I don’t think we should be afraid to also discuss what I think is probably the most important factor in considering photo enforcement: frustration. When drivers keep running through an intersection after the light is clearly red, it makes us grumble under our breath and get angry. Why is their time more important than ours? In our heads, we start to think words that resemble those symbols in cartoons — “&@%&$!!!”

Frustration means something. It leads to discourteous and aggressive driving, and less defensive driving. It does matter, and we should let that be part of the debate. Making sure the jerks who run the lights get tickets does have a positive outcome, and it isn’t just vindictiveness.

The mayor and the City Council have asked us to look at what other options are out there before we specifically decide on photo enforcement. Longer yellow lights could reduce crashes, and emphasis patrols on certain intersections with traffic officers will give us some idea of what happens when we do more patrol at specific locations. Do crashes go down? What about the effect of personal contact and the education that goes along with being stopped by an actual officer? Those are good questions and we’ll look at those before we go directly to photo enforcement.

And yes, I will be happy to tell you where we will be doing extra enforcement this spring and summer. Be careful at 104th and 256th, James and Central, Smith and Central, and at 212th and the West Valley Highway. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

We’ll keep you up to date on this topic, as will the mayor and City Council. In Kent we are looking at photo enforcement for the right reasons, and doing it in a logical way.

Have a great week.

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