Attention drivers: Some school zones have changed this year

Attention drivers: Some school zones have changed this year »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. - New signs are posted, the yellow warning lights are flashing: class is in session, and school districts are expanding their attempt to rein in speeding drivers in school zones.

The KATU Problem Solvers spent nearly a month identifying how school zone speeds are policed in Oregon and Washington and our analysis found significantly more districts are looking for ways to stop drivers from going dangerous speeds near schools, methods that include a first-of-its-kind program that might rewrite the enforcement rules for school zones throughout Oregon.

The changes are designed to protect children like 11-year-old Charish, who lives right across the street from Olympic Elementary in Longview. But she, along with her six-year-old cousin, are not allowed to walk to school alone. That’s because of the threat posed by drivers going as fast as 50 miles an hour in the school zone.

Hope for a safe passage comes in the form of a camera lens: Olympic is one of three schools in Longview to get a new speed camera; St. Helens Elementary and Kessler Elementary also have these new devices this school year. Drivers clocked exceeding the posted 20 mph speed limit will have to pay $124 speeding ticket.

Longview police say since the cameras went in, the number of drivers caught speeding through the school zones has dropped by 37%. People in Longview voted out red light cameras in 2011, but voted to keep the school zone cameras.

“I feel it's a lot safer. I don't have a problem with it at all,” said driver and parent Kristina Apperson said. “I actually like them up because then I know my kids, if they're crossing the street, they're not going to get run over by someone who's not being observant.”

Police like the low speed limit in a school zone for an obvious reason: walkers and bicycle riders are much more likely to live through an accident at those speeds. A pedestrian struck by a vehicle moving at 20 mph has up to a 90% survival rate. But increase the speed to 30 mph, and the survival rate is just 50%: 5 out of 10 pedestrians struck by a vehicle at that speed would be killed.  And if the vehicle is traveling at 40 mph or more, a pedestrian’s survival rate plummets to just 10%.

A National Highway Transportation Safety Administration study in Portland in 2006 showed most drivers go faster than 20 mph in a school zone: almost 60%.  But when you add a speed camera and flashing lights on the school zone signs, the study says the number of speeders dropped to 10%

Those are the kind of results Oregon cities hope for when they send camera vans to school zones. In Beaverton, you’ll see them at problem spots like Jesuit High School, Sunset High School, and Saint Cecilia. In Oregon, cities can only use mobile cameras in school zones, not fixed cameras, like in Longview.

But that is changing.  The city of Fairview is doing a pilot project for the roads by Reynolds Middle School and High School.  A new state law allows them to install a fixed camera here for a trial period. If it works, lawmakers could allow fixed cameras at school zones around the state.

Some schools in Oregon are fighting just to get a speed zone, much less a camera, like Cascade High School in Turner. The speed limit for the main route past the school is set at 55 mph – and some drivers go even faster. Often, it’s the teen-aged students themselves, said Karina Pickett, who just graduated from Cascade in June. “We're teenagers. We just got our license,” explained Pickett. “C'mon, we're going to show off with our friends.”

Two days after graduation, Pickett’s friend and soccer teammate, 18-year-old Lindsey Magnusson, was exiting the school parking lot after dropping off her brother at soccer practice.  The Marion County Sheriff’s Department said Lindsey pulled out in front of another vehicle.  Deputies do not know exactly how fast the other vehicle was going, but they said it did not exceed the speed limit of 55.  Lindsey did not survive the crash.  Pickett said, “I’m sure if Lindsey got hit at 20 mph, instead of 55 mph, she would be here today.”

Marion County commissioners just created new school speed zones for Cascade High School and other schools around the county that do not have speed limits of 20 mph.   Eight schools are on the high priority list, which means the new school speed zone signs went up just in time for school to start:

  • Cascade High and Junior High schools in Turner
  • Jefferson High and Middle Schools in Jefferson
  • North Marion in Aurora
  • West Stayton Alternative School in Aumsville
  • Abiqua Elementary in Salem
  • Valley Inquiry Charter School in Salem