Tuesday, February 13, 2007

What drives the issuing of speeding tickets


Suzy Katona can't shake the feeling that the Washington State Patrol has been sneaky lately, "hiding out" and issuing speeding tickets along Maltby Road between the Bothell-Everett Highway and state Route 9 in Snohomish County.

She and many of her neighbors have been nailed going over the posted 35-mph speed limit. The limit should be closer to 45 mph, she believes.

The first time police pulled her over, Katona got a warning. The second time, she got hit with a $132 ticket.

"That whole area is a speed trap," said Katona, a mother of two who lives in Snohomish. "I think it's a very sneaky way of collecting money."

Q: Who sets speed limits in this state? And where does the money from such tickets go?

A: State or local departments of transportation set speed limits.

And, although Washington State Patrol troopers write the bulk of speeding tickets in the state, money collected from those tickets doesn't go directly into the agency's coffers.

"The money aspect is very interesting, because people seem to think we make money off of the speeding tickets, and that's incorrect," said Sgt. Monica Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Patrol.

In 2006, troopers stopped nearly 480,000 drivers statewide for speeding. They let them off about 37 percent of the time, giving out about 176,600 oral or written warnings and actually ticketing about 303,000 people.

So how much does the state collect in fines?

It's unclear, because there's no central place where such information resides. Courts in each county or city are responsible for collecting fines on speeding tickets, not the State Patrol. And the Administrative Office of the Courts, which keeps data for most courts in the state, says it doesn't track specifically how much the courts are taking in from speeding fines.

A speeding survey by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that 40 state police departments or highway patrols, including Washington's, issued more than 8.1 million citations for speeding in 2003, generating as much as $2.3 billion in revenue.

So, in Washington, who gets that money?

The state and the local jurisdiction where the citation was issued split the cost of the fine. So, if a state trooper tickets you on Interstate 5 through Seattle, the city would get 57 percent and the rest goes into a state fund called the Public Safety Education Account.

That account pays for statewide traffic safety education, criminal justice training, crime victims' compensation and drug court operations. The State Patrol gets some money from that account to pay for the state crime lab and other programs.

The state Supreme Court sets the base traffic fines. And base speed limits are written into state law, but the Washington Department of Transportation can raise or lower the speed limits for a number of reasons, including high incidence of collisions. Cities and counties can do the same on their streets and roads.

The basic rule is that speed limits are set at the 85th percentile of speed, that is, the speed that 85 out of 100 motorists will naturally drive at.

Addressing other misperceptions, Hunter said, "We don't have quotas. That's always been a big debate. No, we don't. It doesn't happen that way for us. (But) we expect troopers to work."

State troopers go where the problems are, she said. "People think we're making money, but what we're doing is responding to the calls of the citizens."

District commanders look at collision, arrest and complaint data and decide whether they need to step up enforcement in those areas, she said.

Statewide last year, troopers wrote the most speeding tickets in Chehalis near Rush Road, making 3,870 stops and issuing 2,786 tickets.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission and the State Patrol have been stepping up enforcement to reduce the number of speed-related collisions.

One area where troopers plan to blitz from Feb. 26 to March 10?

You guessed it. The Maltby area where Katona got pulled over.


Here are the top 10 locations for speeding stops in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties in 2006.

1. U.S. Route 2, Snohomish County. Milepost 3 near the start of Stevens Pass Highway at state Route 204

2. Interstate 5, Federal Way. Milepost 143 near ramps for state Route 18

3. Interstate 5, Snohomish County. Milepost 210 near 236th Street Northeast and Stillaguamish River

4. Interstate 5, Federal Way. Milepost 144 near South 320th Street

5. Interstate 5, Tulalip. Milepost 204 near 116th Street Northeast

6. State Route 18, King County. Milepost 20 near intersection of 276th Avenue Southeast/Issaquah Hobart Road Southeast

7. Interstate 5, Seattle/Shoreline. Milepost 174

8. Interstate 405, Kirkland. Milepost 17 at Northeast 72nd Place

9. Interstate 5, Lynnwood. Milepost 184 near 164th Street Southwest

10. Interstate 5, Tulalip. Milepost 205 near 116th Street Northeast

Consumer Smarts runs every Tuesday. If you have a consumer question we'll try to get it answered. Call Phuong Cat Le at 206-448-8390 or e-mail consumersmarts@seattlepi.com.