City defies trend, unplugs traffic camera

MIKE ARCHBOLD; The News Tribune
Published: October 8th, 2007 12:31 PM

While other Puget Sound cities are turning increasingly to photo enforcement to catch traffic scofflaws, Bonney Lake has turned off its single camera -- for now.

A year ago, Bonney Lake started photo enforcement of three school zones in the city using a mobile van provided by Nestor Traffic Systems of Providence, R.I. The camera rotated among the school zones.

More than 5,900 speeding tickets at $101 a pop had been issued by the end of the school year.

The plateau city was one of the first in the region to use camera cops, right behind Lakewood and Auburn. Tacoma has since started a program, and Fife and Federal Way have plans to.

But Bonney Lake turned off its camera for the summer and then didn’t turn it back on last month. Instead, it installed flashing lights at school zones to warn motorists to slow down to 20 mph. A $9,000 grant from the Washington State Traffic Commission and $7,000 in city money paid for the flashing lights.

Now city officials are trying to determine whether cameras are needed at all.

“The problem with photo enforcement is that it is dedicated to selective streets,” said Councilman Mark Hamilton.

Law enforcement policy needs to be established with the entire city in mind, he added.

Mayor Neil Johnson told the Bonney City Council last week he hopes to have a recommendation on how to proceed by the end of the month. More information on all options is needed, he said.

In the meantime, flashing lights and police officer patrols are keeping order at school zones. Johnson said he thinks camera technology can help maximize police efficiency by allowing officers to focus on crime rather than sitting at a school zone.

There’s also some money at stake: While the majority of ticket revenue went to Nestor for equipment and operations, Johnson said the city collected nearly $100,000.

The photo enforcement discussion arose when the city became dissatisfied with Nestor’s running of the camera program, specifically making sure that tickets paid were accounted for immediately. Some motorists received late notices after they already had paid.

The city also had some concerns about Nestor’s stability as a company given multiple changes in leadership in the past year, Johnson said.

As a result, it cancelled the contract with Nestor and is looking at proposals from two other companies, Redflex Traffic Systems and American Traffic Systems. Beyond that, the mayor said the city would like to monitor the effectiveness of the flashing lights in reducing speeds.

Assistant Police Chief Dana Hubbard said speed surveys in September indicated drivers were averaging 18 to 20 mph in school zones. The survey will continue this month.

The state Traffic Safety Commission said research indicates that flashing warning lights in school zones lower normal speeds by 4 to 7 mph.

Bonney Lake police have told Johnson they think they can keep the streets safe for school children.

“We do have two or three officers who, when not talking calls, will be in school zones,” Hubbard said.

Johnson said he wants accurate data to back up any decision.

Deputy Mayor Dan Swatman said the bottom line for him is the city’s bottom line.

“Is it more cost effective with a device than actually dedicating a person?” he asked.

No one argues that the camera resulted in lower speeds; the question is whether that behavior would continue with the camera gone.

Johnson said the city also is looking at speed radar warning signs similar to one Federal Way has installed. The small signs, which attach to poles, display how fast a car is going to help educate motorists. No tickets are issued.

Federal Way officials like the speed radar signs but also plan to add cameras at red-light intersections.

Johnson said he doesn’t think his smaller city needs red-light enforcement. A year ago, however, Bonney Lake was making plans to mount cameras at two intersections on state Highway 410.

Mike Archbold: 253-597-8692