Traffic Cameras 101 is a lesson learned

More than 21,000 tickets have been issued to school-zone speeders and red-light runners since the City of Renton began its Photo Enforcement Program last June.

I received one of those tickets last October.

My offense? Speeding in front of Renton High School.

I am not alone. The four lanes of South Second Street in front of Renton High are the location for most (nearly 12,000) of the 14,470 Photo Enforcement tickets issued for school-zone speeding from September to March, plus a month-long warning period.

That’s probably because those four lanes make up a major city road, taking drivers from downtown Renton to Rainier Avenue South. Renton Police Commander Kent Curry says 30 to 40 percent more vehicles travel that stretch than the other two monitored school zones: McKnight Middle School and Talbot Hill Elementary.

I don’t remember where I was trying to go, but I know I didn’t expect that my journey would result in a speeding ticket.

A week or so later, I received three pictures in the mail: two of my car speeding through the school zone and a close-up of my car’s rear license plate. Details were printed across the top of one of the pictures: 12:43 p.m., 27 mph in a 20 mph school-zone. The fine: $124.

Pretty hard to contest that evidence. But the two speeding tickets I received the previous month taught me that I should try.

So I went to traffic court. So did a lot of other people. Courtroom No. 2 at Renton Municipal Court was full on that mid-January day.

The judge split us into two groups: the red-light runners and the school-zone speeders.

He then began his lecture on Traffic Cameras 101.

The tickets we had received are the same as a parking ticket, he said. They would not go on our driving record or affect our insurance.

Then he got to the part we really cared about: how much money he could reduce our tickets by. For those who received $124 tickets — given for running red lights or for going 6-15 mph over the 20 mph school-zone speed limit — he could reduce the ticket to $74 at the lowest. That reduced fine wouldn’t be as low for the $250 ticket for going more than 15 mph over the the 20 mph school-zone speed limit.

When it was our turn, the judge asked each of us two simple questions.

Did we remember the day the offense happened? What did we remember about that day?

One man didn’t remember anything about his violation because he wasn’t the one who committed it. His wife was driving the car.

Others remembered more. Many remembered yellow flashing lights, but they also remembered that no children were present. They thought that’s all that mattered.

They were wrong, the judge said. Now that the Photo Enforcement Program has started, drivers must go 20 mph in the three monitored school zones whenever those yellow lights are flashing, or when children are present.

Despite our confusion, many of us got our fines reduced.

One middle-aged woman who received a ticket for speeding near Talbot Hill said she hadn’t seen any children, school buses or flashing lights. The signs were confusing, she said. She had been driving 45 years without a ticket.

The judge agreed she had a spotless driving record and reduced her ticket to $74.

He did the same for me. Only my record wasn’t so spotless. He knew about one of those two previous speeding tickets. (The unknown ticket was issued by a King County sheriff’s deputy, not a Renton officer.)

But I told him I had a broken speedometer. That did the trick.

I went home happy. A lot of people didn’t.

“It’s just ridiculous,” a Seattle woman named Carol said of her ticket. “Tell Renton maybe they should have a bake sale or something if they need money.”

Carol said her ticket turned her off of the City of Renton.

My ticket didn’t turn me off of Renton’s city officials. But it did turn me off of that four-lane flashing stretch outside Renton High. Now, when I have to get to Rainier, I go another way.