New state law gives green light to more traffic cameras

The move comes as roadway deaths in the state have hit historic highs.

By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Drivers in Washington state may soon face better odds of getting caught on camera if they run a red light, speed through a work zone on a city street or fail to stop at a crosswalk.

A new law signed March 26 makes it possible for cities and counties to deploy traffic cameras in more places to crack down on violators and prevent deadly roadway incidents.

“Speed cameras have proven to change driver behavior,” Gov. Jay Inslee said before signing legislation that broadens existing statutes concerning use of automated traffic enforcement cameras. “Drivers slow down and slowing down saves lives.”

Inslee began calling for greater use of speed cameras on state roads last summer as traffic-related deaths climbed toward historic levels.

The state recorded 674 traffic fatalities in 2021 and 743 in 2022 with preliminary estimates for 2023 showing the death toll eclipsing 800, according to data compiled by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. Excessive speed was a factor in 32% of the fatalities in 2023, Inslee said.

Rep. Brandy Donaghy, D-Snohomish County, authored the bill that Inslee signed. It emerged as one of the session’s major traffic safety measures after others, like lowering the legal limit for driving drunk, failed to advance.

“We know the science. We know cameras are a deterrent. It’s going to help keep people alive,” she said.

Washington allows red light cameras at intersections under certain circumstances. Cameras intended to detect speeding are permitted in zones around schools, parks, hospitals and locations designated as priority areas by cities.

Before installing cameras, cities and counties must gather data to justify deploying the technology at a desired location. Then, notices must be posted publicly at the location for 30 days before the devices are turned on. And local governments must report annually on collisions and tickets issued at those sites.

Cameras, on local streets or a highway, may only take pictures of the vehicle and its license plate while an alleged infraction is occurring. State law bars those pictures from revealing the face of the driver or passengers in the vehicle.

House Bill 2384 expands several provisions of current law.

It will now allow traffic cameras to be used on portions of state routes in city limits that are classified as city streets, and in work zones on city and county roads, including those that are state highways.

It also permits use of traffic cameras to nab vehicles that fail to stop at crosswalks, or travel in lanes reserved for buses and other forms of public transportation. And cameras can be mounted on the front of a bus to photograph vehicles traveling in or blocking the designated transit lane.

Cities and counties, as part of the report demonstrating the need for using cameras, will have to add data on collisions and near collisions, evidence of vehicles speeding, and anticipated or actual infeasibility of mitigation measures other than cameras at the designated location.

And starting in 2026, cities and counties must report the amount of revenue collected from violators and how those dollars were spent.

The maximum penalty amount for violations captured by a traffic camera cannot exceed $145 per incident, adjusted for inflation every five years. This maximum penalty amount can be doubled for a traffic camera-enforced school zone speed infraction.

But the new law says the penalty will be cut in half for registered owners of vehicles who are recipients of state public assistance, other than Medicaid, if they request such a reduction.

The bill stirred partisan passions as Democrats used their majority in the House to pass it on a party-line 55-38 vote. It cleared the Senate on a 26-23 vote as three Democratic senators joined Republicans to oppose it.

The last couple sessions, Republicans did support using new technology and cameras to increase safety in highway work zones, said Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee.

“We know we have to do something to curtail what we’re seeing on our roads and highways,” he said.

But this legislation is too big of an expansion on the use of cameras on city streets and county roads, Barkis said.

It raises the specter of cameras becoming a source of revenue for communities, he said. And his colleagues disagreed with letting some people pay a reduced fine rather than treating all those ticketed equally, he said.

Donaghy pushed back, saying the financial burden isn’t the same for every driver.

“I don’t think the main goal is to punish,” Donaghy said, referring to the fine. “The main goal is to get people to slow down.”

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