Traffic flows over the American Legion Bridge along I-495, the Capitol Beltway, on the day before the Thanksgiving holiday November 22, 2006 between Virginia and Maryland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Virginia police officers can already use radar and lasers to spot speeders. But police officers still have to give out tickets the old-fashioned way: By catching the car and handing the driver a summons.

That would change under legislation approved by the General Assembly allowing state and local police to set up speed cameras at highway work sites and school crossing zones. Virginia law already allows similar technology at toll booths and red lights, but the pending legislation marks the state’s first move into automated speed enforcement.

Supporters of the legislation have presented it as a narrowly tailored public-safety measure designed to slow cars down and save lives in areas where it’s difficult for police to pull drivers over. 

Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, the bill’s sponsor, said the cameras will help protect road workers and schoolkids.

“It’s a pretty simple concept,” Jones said. “We want to keep them safe from people who are breaking the law.”

Critics have characterized the bill as a scheme to let governments and their private-sector partners make money off of unsuspecting drivers.

Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, denounced the idea on the Senate floor with such ferocity he felt compelled to assure colleagues he was not, in fact, running for statewide office.

“This bill is horrible in so many ways,” Morrissey said. “If you want bigger government, if you want government to reach into your pocket… if you’re not a fan of the little guy, then vote for this bill.”

The cameras — likely operated by private companies — would take a series of photos to measure a vehicle’s speed. Motorists captured going more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit would get a ticket in the mail. Mailed tickets would come with a fine of up to $100, and violators would be notified that paying the penalty wouldn’t affect their driving record or insurance coverage.

The proposal requires signs to be posted within 1,000 feet of any speed camera to warn drivers to slow down.

The legislation requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to turn over address and vehicle registration data to any private camera company responsible for mailing tickets, but a law enforcement officer would have to sign off on each summons. 

If the car’s registered owner wasn’t the person driving when the violation was clocked, he or she could challenge the ticket in court. But in order for those challenges to be successful, the vehicle owner would have to tell authorities the name and address of the person who was driving.

Morrissey, a former criminal defense attorney, argued the bill upends the justice system by forcing vehicle owners to prove their innocence instead of requiring the government to prove their guilt.

“Not only do you have to put up an affirmative defense to defend yourself, if it’s somebody else, you’ve got to dime them out,” Morrissey said.

The speed camera idea was first proposed in the 2019 session, but the legislature asked for a study before moving forward. 

Two speed camera companies — Optotraffic and Verra Mobility — participated in the work group convened by public safety officials, according to the group’s report to legislators. Both companies have hired lobbying teams in Virginia. Optotraffic is being represented by McGuireWoods. Verra Mobility has retained a pair of lobbyists from Reed Smith.

The speed camera bill still has to be signed by Gov. Ralph Northam. His administration has already signaled support for the concept by including a version of it in an omnibus transportation bill packed with several other road safety measures. 

The standalone speed camera bill passed the House on a 53-44 vote mostly along party lines, with the Democratic majority pushing it through over Republican opposition.

It cleared the Senate last week 23-17, with a few defections on both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, who voted for the bill, said she was supporting it after police told her it would help with a “huge safety issue.”

“It’s very dangerous to pull people over in school districts. It’s dangerous to pull people over in work zones,” Dunnavant said. “I will be supporting this bill today because my law enforcement officers have asked me to do so.”

Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, argued the bill would effectively outsource police functions to the private sector.

“We are turning over law enforcement to private companies for them to raise money on our citizens,” Peake said.

The bill specifies that any speed camera contract with a private vendor “shall be based on the value of the goods and services provided, not on the number of violations paid or monetary penalties imposed.”

Supporters of the bill said that language should quash any financial incentive for the cameras to produce as many tickets as possible.

“They have these things all over Maryland,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. “And my Google Maps and my Waze thing are always telling me there’s a speed camera ahead. And you know what, everybody slows down… these things work.”