Warning: Angry speeders ahead
Lakewood school bears the brunt of driver complaints

ROB TUCKER; The News Tribune
Published: June 14th, 2007 01:00 AM

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Lakewood police issued an average of 321 speeding citations a week in a 12-week period this year on 108th Street Southwest in the St. Frances Cabrini School zone.

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“The backlash continues,” Cabrini Principal Stephanie Van Leuven says of angry drivers.

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Lakewood is feeling a big backlash to its photo traffic enforcement effort along a street that speeders frequent.

The anger comes from people nailed for speeding in a school zone next to St. Frances Cabrini School on 108th Street Southwest. Police say the 20-mph zone is one of the worst in the city for speeders.

But the drivers’ wrath is directed at school officials instead of City Hall: The police photo vehicle, which comes and goes unpredictably, is parked on school grounds for much of the school year. Police have issued hundreds of citations a week.

Drivers can receive fines of $101 to $250, depending on how fast they were going. A radar camera detects speeding and snaps a picture of the offending vehicle’s license plate.

People have called or stopped at Cabrini almost daily to complain and even yell at school officials in the office, in the parking lot and on the phone.

“The backlash continues,” said Stephanie Van Leuven, the school principal.

One angry man has shown up at the private Catholic grade school three times to complain. A school official tried Friday to hand another person a letter explaining the city program, but “he just threw it up in the air. He didn’t want to read it,” she said.

Dan Still, a parent of two Cabrini students, said having a police photo enforcement camera and a technician on school property has created a potentially dangerous situation.

“You’ve made people angry,” he told Lakewood officials at a City Council meeting this week. “We have angry people in the school.”

With the school year ending today, the confrontations are expected to die down – until September. Police want to continue enforcement with a mobile camera when school’s in session.

Ultimately, elected leaders might decide. The backlash has boiled over to the council, where there’s disagreement on what to do.

In a 12-week period from February through April, police issued an average of 321 citations a week at the Cabrini school zone.

While the numbers of violators has dropped since then, it remains unsafe, said Police Chief Larry Saunders. Speeders endanger the school’s 252 students and other students from nearby Clover Park High School.

The Cabrini school’s students range from prekindergarten to eighth grade.

At least two council members and the school principal want the city to try a different method that might take some heat off the school: install flashing lights on school zone speed limit signs, the same way they’ve been put on school signs along other busy streets in Lakewood.

Saunders said changing to flashing lights would cut back on enforcement. The mobile radar cameras would work only when the lights are flashing, about 30 minutes twice a day, he said. The lights are programmed to flash only when schoolchildren are present.

The mobile radar camera was on the job at Cabrini school for many hours longer, at various times from 7 a.m. to at least 3:45 p.m. and sometimes 5 p.m., depending on after-school activities, he said.

The speed limit on 108th is 25 mph outside the school zone. Without longer periods of photo enforcement, the average traffic speeds likely will go up to 35 to 40 mph most of the time, Saunders said, making the street more dangerous to pedestrians.

Before doing anything, he said, city officials should talk to neighbors about what they want, possibly relocate the camera equipment off school grounds and install “rumble strips” to better alert drivers to slow down. City crews already have improved traffic signs, he said.

Councilman Walter Neary and Councilwoman Helen McGovern favor installing flashing lights.

Dan Still, the school parent, said he’s a police officer in a neighboring jurisdiction. He also favored flashing lights.

He said 108th has changed from a sleepy neighborhood street to a busy shortcut to the expanding Towne Center and City Hall.

The street carries about 5,500 vehicles per day, less than some arterial streets, according to city records.

Saunders said this spot generated about $200,000 in revenue last year – roughly half the total brought in from school zone enforcement.

But he said officers could easily move the equipment to other busy streets and issue enough tickets to make up the difference.

“I don’t want to raise revenues, I want to slow speeders,” the chief said.