Sixth-Grade Science Project Inspires Legislation


It isn't often that a bill inspired by a sixth-grade science project lands on Gov. Pete Wilson's desk. But it isn't often that an 11-year-old hits on a topic that touches the nerves of so many motorists: parking meters.

It's supposed to be simple. Drop a few coins into a meter and get a set amount of parking time. But Ellie Lammer had some doubts.

About a year ago, her mother, Debra Michta, put an hour's worth of coins into a Berkeley meter. In return, she got 45 minutes--and a $20 ticket.

Ellie kept that incident in mind when it came time for her school's science fair last spring.

So, armed with $5 worth of nickels and three stopwatches, Ellie tested 50 meters at random in the streets around Berkeley.

What she found raised more than a few eyebrows. Only three of the meters provided the correct amount of time. Although 28% of the meters shortchanged the motorist, 66% actually gave more time than specified.

"That surprised me," said Ellie, now 12. "But still, you can't tell just by looking at it if it's going to be accurate, and you don't know if the meter's going to give you twice as much or half as much as the time you paid for."

Ellie displayed her findings--laid out in spreadsheets and color pie charts on a cardboard exhibit--at her sixth-grade science fair in April.

It didn't take long for reporters to get wind of Ellie's project, or to recognize the significance of its results.

Politicians soon followed. She received calls from Councilwoman Diane Woolley of Berkeley and state Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco). Good job, they said. Tell us more.

Ellie did. More than three months after Ellie first propped up her cardboard display for her teachers and classmates to see, Kopp asked her to show her project to legislators in Sacramento.

Her simple study so impressed Kopp that he proposed a bill authorizing county sealers of weights and measures--the agencies responsible for regulating everything from truck scales to supermarket scanners--to test and certify the accuracy of all parking meters within their jurisdiction.

In what Kopp described as a legislative loophole, there is currently no law requiring cities to monitor the accuracy of parking meters. He proposed that county agencies monitor the meters because of what he called a conflict of interest in leaving it up to the cities that depend on revenues from parking tickets.

After Ellie's testimony, Assemblyman Tom Woods (R-Shasta) praised the cost-effectiveness of Ellie's research.

"At 12 years old, you've done for $5 a perfectly infallible study," he said. "By the time you get through college you'll learn how to do this for several hundred thousand dollars."

On Aug. 31, the bill was overwhelmingly approved by the Assembly and unanimously approved by the Senate.

A spokeswoman for Wilson said the governor is expected to take action by Sept. 30, although the measure's wide margin of support would ensure that it becomes law if he does not.

Still, that's not to say the measure has no critics.

Fran David, Berkeley's director of finance, said she has reservations about the funding necessary to effectively carry out the bill.

"I just look at the resources that the cities and counties have," David said. "I don't know how they're ever going to do it."

Although Kopp did not attempt to estimate the cost of the program, he said he doubts that the bill would lead to a heavy burden on the county sealers office since it wouldn't require sweeping inspections of the thousands of meters in a city. Rather, he said, most checks would probably be complaint-driven.

Doubts about the bill aside, David lauded Ellie's work.

"What she did was very simple and in a very simple way, eloquent. She identified a problem and she captured it in the data, and it didn't cost a couple thousand dollars to do."

David added that many cities are already combating the problem of inaccurate meters by replacing older, mechanical meters with newer, more accurate ones.

Berkeley, for example, is in the process of replacing 2,300 of the existing 3,600 meters with more accurate, sturdier, electronic models. "Who couldn't argue that if you put a quarter in, you should get a quarter's worth of time?" said Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz.

Meanwhile, the girl behind the legislation isn't quite sure what to make of her project's success.

She is still surprised when she is recognized in public. "I'll be walking down the street and people sometimes stop me at the corner," Ellie said. "They say, 'Hey, aren't you the parking meter girl? I really liked your study. I've always thought they were wrong.' "

But she has no intentions of a follow-up project on the accuracy of other measuring devices such as supermarket scales and gas pumps.

She has greater confidence in those.

"I learned that the county sealers of weights and measures actually check them," she said. "If parking meters were checked regularly, it'd be OK."

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