Lawmakers discuss sobriety checkpoints, highway cameras to combat traffic deaths

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(The Center Square) – With record traffic fatalities in Washington state, some lawmakers are reconsidering sobriety checkpoints and automated enforcement cameras in a bid to bring the number of road deaths down in the state.

Traffic deaths in Washington hit a high in 2022, with 750 fatalities on Washington’s roads, the highest number since 1990, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Things look to have gotten worse last year, in that by July 31, 417 people had died on Washington’s roads – that is, on pace to surpass the number of 2022 deaths.

“What we’ve done to date is not having the impact we want,” Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, said during Thursday’s pre-session briefing with reporters when asked about automated cameras and sobriety, or DUI, checkpoints in known high-ticket areas.

He added, “On speed enforcement and automated enforcement we need to bring the public along with us and move forward slowly and expeditiously.”

That’s due at least in part to the fact that the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that random sobriety checkpoints are unconstitutional based on the United States and Washington state constitutions.

Liias said if Gov. Jay Inslee proposes studying some of the more advanced ways to use automatic traffic safety cameras to lower traffic fatalities and show lawmakers the data, that would be worth considering.

“Not to show that it raises revenue, but that it changes behavior,” the senator said.

Speed cameras will be deployed in highway work zones starting this summer. Red light cameras and school zone speed cameras have been in use on city streets in the Evergreen State for years, but having automated speed cameras on the interstate will be something new.

Senate Bill 5272 – passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Inslee last year – authorizes the use of traffic cameras to enforce speed limits on state roads starting July 1. Tickets may be issued for violations that occur when workers are present and when speed zones are clearly marked to warn drivers.

“I think we were lucky to get cameras in work zones passed,” said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the ranking minority member on the transportation committee. “I think my side of the aisle is not necessarily in favor of putting cameras everywhere.”

King questioned the logic of some people regarding when cameras should and shouldn’t be used.

“I find it interesting that when this was considered before and where there was a robbery or something of that nature and there were cameras on the corner and maybe we caught a picture of the person committing the crime, there was pushback from both sides of the aisle about where and how we could use that information,” he observed.

He went on to say, “So, now you’re saying since you are speeding we can have cameras everywhere to do that.”

Making enforcement of traffic laws all the more difficult is the dearth of law enforcement officers, especially Washington State Patrol troopers, pointed out Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.

“We’ve taken a lot of action in terms of bringing up the salaries of the troopers to compare with other law enforcement; we’ve provided for picking up lateral transfers and bonus incentives for recruits to sign up through our academy,” Fey said.

He added, “We’re not sitting still on this, but like every other occupation out there, there’s a struggle to get people to be interested in the work.”

The 60-day legislative session convenes on Monday, Jan. 8.

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