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Grade 8 Reading Passage

Kid Fights Cheater Meters and Wins!
The true story of a girl with a stopwatch and a bag of nickels who uncovered a local parking scandal and helped change the laws of her state . . .

Ellie Lammer wasn't trying to spark a revolt, she just wanted a haircut. That was in the fall of 1997. Ellie was 11 years old at the time, and she was getting her tresses trimmed in her hometown of Berkeley, California. When Ellie and her mom returned to their car, they found a parking ticket stuck to the windshield. It didn't seem possible: Less than an hour earlier, Ellie had pumped an hour's worth of coins into the meter. But now the needle was at zero, and Ellie's mom owed $20.

Feeling cheated, Ellie dropped another nickel in the meter and twisted the knob. The needle clicked over to the four-minute mark. Ellie stared at her watch while her mom watched the meter. Less than three minutes later, all of the time had expired. There it was: proof that they'd been cheated. The city tore up the ticket when Ellie's mom complained about the meter.

But the experience left Ellie wondering how many other meters were inaccurate. Six months later, she decided to find out. She'd been looking around for a good science-fair project—and that meter in Berkeley still bothered her. So armed with a bag of nickels and a stopwatch, she hit the streets.

Ellie didn't have the time or money to test every meter, so she focused on a sample of 50 meters located in different parts of the city. To avoid inconveniencing motorists, she did her research after 6 P.M. and on Sundays, when the meters were not in use. She put in eight minutes' worth of nickels in each meter, then measured how much time it really gave.

The results were not pretty. Ellie's findings suggested that more than nine out of every ten meters in the city were inaccurate—and that every fourth parking meter was running out of time too quickly. With 3,600 parking meters in the city, that meant a lot of undeserved tickets. As Ellie wrote in her science-project report, "I learned which meters cheat you and which meters cheat the City of Berkeley. But I learned that almost all meters cheat someone, so beware."

When the science fair rolled around, Ellie presented her findings with computer-generated charts and graphs. Her classmates weren't very interested in her project. "It's not like they have to drive a car or put money in a parking meter," she explains. But her project was a huge hit with parents. More than 50 of them lined up that night to share their own parking-meter horror stories with Ellie.

After that, word about Ellie's meter project spread fast. Within a few weeks, Ellie got a call from local politician Diane Woolley. At the time, Berkeley was considering replacing its meters with more accurate digital ones. Ellie shared her findings at city hall, and the politicians were impressed. "We don't get reports this thorough when we pay consultants hundreds of thousands of dollars," one remarked. Based on Ellie's study, they decided to purchase 2,000 new meters.

The California state legislature also decided to crack down on cheater meters. After Ellie presented her findings, they enacted "Lammer's Law," which requires California's 26 counties to test the accuracy of parking meters. Any meter found to be inaccurate must be fixed or dismantled.

California Governor Pete Wilson signed the law on November 1, 1998. At the time, he commented, "Ellie's ingenuity and dedication has earned her the gratitude of those Californians who've dug through their purses and pockets in search of exact change to feed the meters, only to return to find their cars bearing the dreaded green envelope of a parking ticket."

Ellie became a celebrity. She was in newspapers all over the country and featured on local television news during the summer and fall of 1998. CNN did a story about her. She was even a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. "It was kind of a weird moment of being a celebrity," she says.

Ellie, who's now an eighth-grader at Martin Luther King Middle School, is proud of the work she's done. But she doesn't see meter monitoring as her life's work: "Right now I don't mind being known as the parking-meter girl, but I'm sure that later in life I'll want something different."

© 2000 by Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. Yonkers, NY 10703-1057, a nonprofit organization.  Reprinted with permission from ZILLIONS ® for educational purposes only.  No commercial use or photocopying permitted.

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