RICHMOND — Across Virginia, local governments are launching speed camera enforcement programs in school and work zones in an effort to slow an increase in accidents seen during the pandemic.
While recent data shows crashes have fallen to pre-pandemic levels, some local leaders are questioning whether the programs, which not only record when drivers are moving above the speed limit but issue them tickets for the infraction, infringe on people’s privacy rights.
“There should never be a time when a locality tries to simply put something in effect to make money from someone else’s misdoing,” said Shawn Graber, a member of the Board of Supervisors for Frederick County, which is considering installing speed cameras in school zones.
In 2020, the General Assembly passed legislation that authorized state and local law enforcement agencies to install speed cameras in work and school zones. The legislation was intended to help reduce traffic fatalities and encourage drivers to drive slower around children and construction workers.
Traffic fatalities have spiked in recent years across the country, including in Virginia. A Stateline analysis of National Highway Traffic Administration data found that between 2019 and 2022, traffic fatalities increased by 20% in Virginia.
Since passage of the 2020 law, several localities have already started using speed cameras to enforce limits, with what appear to be neutral or positive results.
According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, work zone crashes have reached pre-pandemic levels. Virginia recorded 3,849 crashes in work zones in 2019 and 4,741 crashes in 2022. Preliminary data, which officials note is subject to change, shows that there have been 3,541 work zone crashes this year.
At the same time, crashes in school zones remain relatively flat. In 2019, Virginia recorded 1,756 crashes in school zones compared to the 1,714 crashes in 2022. Preliminary data for the current year shows 1,416 crashes in school zones.
Local governments that have already rolled out speed cameras in school and work zones include the town of Altavista, Fairfax County and the city of Harrisonburg.
Altavista was one of the earliest localities to install cameras in its school zones, which it did in the summer of 2021.
According to Altavista Police Chief Tommy Merricks, the town has issued over 700 citations, with penalties going into the town’s general fund. He said one of the cameras’ advantages is assisting smaller departments with enforcement.
“I think it’s made a difference,” Merricks said. “I think it’s slowing people down.”
The program was paused briefly last year due to the absence of flashing yellow lights in school zones to warn drivers to yield to oncoming traffic, pedestrians or bicyclists. As a result, the town refunded violation fees for any motorists hit with citations in those areas and retrofitted the zones with flashing lights before resuming the program last November.
“We wanted to get this program right,” Merricks said.
In Harrisonburg, city officials installed speed cameras in a work zone on East Market Street near Interstate 81 in June, according to The Daily News Record.
After a one-week study, the city found that thousands of drivers had violated the 25 mph speed limit in the zone, including more than 22,000 drivers going 37 to 49 mph, nearly 600 going more than 50 mph and a dozen traveling at over 60 mph.
“It’s very clear following this speed study that steps have to be taken to improve safety while crews are working in this corridor,” said Harrisonburg Public Works Director Tom Hartman in a June 23 statement. “Installation of these cameras has proven to reduce speeds in other communities where additional safety measures have been needed, so we are eager to see them lead, hopefully, to a reduction in speeds and an increase in safety on East Market Street.”
In Northern Virginia, Fairfax County officials implemented a speed camera program in both school and work zones in May after launching a pilot program last winter at nine schools and a work zone on Route 28.
According to the Fairfax County Police Department, 17,903 violations have been issued through the program since May. The county has collected $601,211 from fines and deposited them into the general county fund.
Other local governments are also eyeing cameras as a solution. In the Piedmont region, Albemarle County officials announced in August that they would begin installing cameras, with county supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley telling CBS 19 they would help “keep our children, their parents, and everyone that’s on the road safe.” Frederick County too is considering adding new cameras, the Northern Virginia Daily has reported. And the Virginia Department of Transportation and Virginia State Police are planning to roll out their own program this fall after delays due to COVID-19 and personnel shortages, according to a March 7 presentation.
Nevertheless, some local officials have voiced concerns about how the cameras will impact motorists’ privacy, the risk of residents perceiving such programs as primarily intended to generate revenue and whether camera programs are actually effective.
“There’s a lot of privacy issues here that these governments need to get squared away before they ever even consider going down this route,” Graber, the Frederick County supervisor, said, citing concerns over the sharing of license plate information with camera companies and law enforcement.
Additionally, he noted it could be a challenge for a vehicle owner to prove they are not responsible for a violation if a friend or family member is driving the vehicle.
State law limits the use of information from speed camera devices used in school and work zones. Information from the cameras must be protected in a database and “used only for enforcement against individuals” who are in violation.
However, the broader use of traffic cameras, particularly license plate readers, have for many years spurred debates between Virginia privacy advocates and law enforcement. In 2021, a bill that would have prohibited law enforcement and regulatory agencies from using license plate readers to collect and store personal information without a warrant died in the House. Another bill also died last session that would have codified a 2020 Virginia Supreme Court decision allowing law enforcement agencies to use and store data from such readers while limiting most data storage to 30 days.
In Nelson County, an hour south of Altavista, officials fretted that the cameras might appear to the public as simply a “revenue generator” and could lead to fees some drivers could not afford to pay.
“For an affluent individual who’s just driving [from] D.C. — they are going to throw that $100 in that letter, send it to you and call it a day,” said Nelson County Board of Supervisors Chair Jesse Rutherford. “They do not care, but it means a lot to a Nelsonian who might be on the way to work and the last 10 feet pushed the gas a little bit too hard.”
Meanwhile, the National Motorists Association, which opposes speed cameras, has questioned whether the devices help reduce speeds or crashes, arguing there has been no independent verification that photo enforcement devices improve safety or reduce overall accidents.
“With properly posted speed limits and properly installed traffic-control devices, there is no need for ticket cameras,” said the association in a statement. “They can actually make our roads less safe.”
Merricks, the Altavista police chief, said he believes speed cameras are effective but understands they are not popular, particularly because they can lead to financial penalties against registered vehicle owners.
“I think studies have shown that slowing the speed down through school zones exponentially makes it safer if there is an accident,” Merricks said.
In July, Nelson County Sheriff David Hill encouraged supervisors to consider the proposal on the grounds that it would improve safety.
“Y’all have heard me gripe and moan about funding and about getting people to work here to serve our citizens,” he said. “This would be a service for our citizens and our youth — our future.”
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