Are cameras on the way to stop speeders – or merely to boost municipal coffers?

March 6, 2020 12:02 am

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Lead foots around Virginia, beware: State legislators have just made it tougher for you to break speed limits with impunity, at least in certain circumstances.

The General Assembly this week passed a bill allowing state and local police to use speed cameras in school and highway work zones. Go at least 10 miles above the limit, and the shutterbugs will snap photos of your car or truck, starting the process of you getting a maximum $100 ticket. 

If an automated camera catches you, the tickets will work out much like current red-light camera infractions in several localities around the state: They’ll be a civil penalty and won’t affect your driving record. 

Just your wallet.

Del. Jay Jones, a Norfolk Democrat who sponsored the bill, told The Virginia Mercury the cameras will help protect road workers and schoolchildren: “We want to keep them safe from people who are breaking the law.”

That’s common sense. It also means many people who routinely bust the speed limit (especially when they don’t see a police car) could be in for an unwanted surprise in their mailbox. 

A spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam told me, by email, that he’ll review the legislation when it reaches his desk. 

While Jones’ bill is similar to Northam’s omnibus transportation bill, Alena Yarmosky said, the Assembly legislation is broader. For example, the omnibus proposal called for speed camera use only in Virginia’s three designated highway safety corridors.” 

Here’s an obvious question: Will this be the tip of the flashbulb for speed cameras in the commonwealth, eventually leading to more locations? We can look as close as the nation’s capital to estimate the potential costs to motorists.

Speaking from experience, it’s not pretty. 

I grew up in D.C. and have several close relatives who still live there. Since the fall of 2017, I’ve racked up three violations for speed cameras in the area: twice in the District, and once in Prince George’s County, Maryland. (By contrast, I’ve never been ticketed by an actual police officer in more than 40 years of driving.)

My costliest violation for $100 came last December, on a road near the neighborhood I grew up in. I was clocked going 11 miles per hour over the 25 mph limit on a steep downhill avenue. 

Here’s the thing: I never felt like I was driving much faster than the motorists around me. It made me wonder whether the District’s speed limits were artificially low, especially on some of the wider thoroughfares, just to boost fines.

The AAA Mid-Atlantic office suggests I may have gotten off lucky. It’s been very critical of the District’s automated speed and red-light cameras, as well as its parking citations. 

The District issued more than a billion dollars in traffic and parking tickets for fiscal years 2017, 2018 and 2019, the office said in a news release last month.

That’s not chump change. AAA also noted the top speed camera fine is now a whopping $500. 

“The jury is still out on whether the higher ticket cost has anything to do with compliance,” John  Townsend, a AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman, said in the news release. “Or, for that matter, if increased ticketing will ever engender a ‘deterrence effect,’ modify behavior, or produce a ‘marked decrease in crashes.’ 

I spoke to Townsend this week by phone. He said if Northam signs the legislation, “some drivers fear some Virginia roads will become like the District – speed traps. 

That will be a great temptation, once some jurisdictions hear the District issued a billion dollars in traffic tickets and parking in a three-year period, including nearly 1.2 million automated traffic enforcement tickets in a single year.”

The $100 limit in the Virginia legislation could stifle that urge. Of course, lawmakers could always revisit that ceiling in coming years. 

Let this be a warning, then, to all of you who consider speed limits as mere “suggestions”: Obey the law and slow down. It could get much more expensive if you don’t. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]