La Center puts the brakes on speeding

Police department's increase in coverage area results in 472 percent spike in traffic citations

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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In La Center, where posted speed limits rarely exceed 35 mph, traffic citations went up 472 percent from 2011 to 2012. Police issued 504 notices of infraction, compared with 88 the year before.

The figures may raise eyebrows or simple make you wonder why?

Turns out, there's no single, simple answer, but in September 2011 there was a clear turning point for enforcement efforts.

At that time, the agency increased its coverage area to include Northwest La Center Road, a major thoroughfare from the city to the Interstate 5 junction. The speed on this 2-mile stretch is 50 mph and changes to 25 mph when motorists hit the bridge that crosses the East Fork Lewis River into La Center. It's the most direct and well-traveled route into the city, and many motorists use it to get to northeastern parts of Clark County.

In the last decade, La Center Road has been a site for traffic fatalities.

Three years ago, in September 2010, a drunken driver crashed into a motorcycle, killing a La Center couple out for a ride. Six years before that, three people died when a car crossed the centerline and collided with an oncoming vehicle.

When La Center Road entered the jurisdiction for city police, officers became more active in enforcement to thwart traffic fatalities and major injury accidents. Six officers and a sergeant patrol the city of 3,000.

A majority of the city's infractions are given out on this road, including the overwhelming majority of speeding infractions and tickets for failing to obey traffic control devices.

"We haven't had any fatalities in quite some time," said Marc Denney, La Center's chief of police. "That awareness is having a positive impact on drivers."

Before joining the La Center Police Department this year, Denney knew the agency had become aggressive with its approach to traffic enforcement. In the past, officers weren't traffic oriented, but the current crop is more apt to do active patrolling, he said.

The few square miles of the city have their own traffic problems. Many people park along the narrow streets in the city, making visibility problematic. Motorists might not see people crossing the street and people often don't use crosswalks anyway — a sign of La Center's small-town culture.

With slow speeds in a slow town, kids tend to play in the streets. The La Center Police Department is trying to make children more aware of the dangers of recreating in the city streets and is encouraging them to take advantage of area parks instead.

Locals know the police are heavy on traffic enforcement and are reminded of their speed by a radar trailer that's put in different spots around the city. Most motorists are ticketed for speeding, but the agency also tickets a fair amount of people who are talking on cellphones while driving or blowing through stop signs.

Criminal citations also went up, from 90 in 2011 to 119 in 2012. Warnings, however, went down in that time period from 22 to 13.

Having a keen eye for cars, whether they belong to residents or casino regulars, means La Center cops recognize when a car doesn't belong. Paying close attention to traffic, Denney said, tends to pay off with other, bigger crimes.

A home was burglarized last month and the suspect's car was seen fleeing the scene. Attentive area cops tracked down the car and all three suspects.