More Virginia communities add speed cameras at school crossing zones — and that’s a good thing

Drive 11 mph over the 25-mph limit and you’ll face a hefty fine

April 7, 2022 12:02 am

A 2020 state law allows localities to erect cameras that monitor a motorist’s speed at highway work sites and school crossing zones. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)

No one should speed in school zones. There’s precious cargo going to and from school buildings, and signs and flashing lights with the appropriate speed limit reminding motorists to slow down.

Chesapeake will now join several other localities in the commonwealth that lighten wallets if you don’t ease up on the accelerator. Think of it as a mutual dietary plan.

Virginia’s second-largest city this month will deploy 10 fixed speed cameras — with two additional mobile units — to monitor traffic around schools. Motorists traveling at least 11 miles per hour over the 25-mph limit will face civil fines of $100. A 30-day grace period will teach potential scofflaws what’s coming if they keep flauting the regulations.

“We’re trying to make it safe” for students, crossing guards and police officers, Chesapeake Police Officer Marc Lawrence told me. A one-day study found 2,000 motorists traveling at least 11 mph over the limit in just a single school zone, he added.

That’s unacceptable.

“So with numbers like that, it’s concerning,” Lawrence said.

Of course it is.

A 2020 state law allows localities to erect the cameras at highway work sites and school crossing zones.

Several communities in the state have since installed the cameras or approved them. They include the Town of Altavista, Fairfax city and county, and Fauquier and Arlington counties. Motorists can contest the violation in court.

It’s not a moneymaking system, Altavista Police Chief Tommy Merricks told me.

“We want to calm traffic in the school zones,” he said, also noting the cameras can free up the 13 officers in the town of 3,400 to handle other duties. “We think this is an instance to work smarter, not harder.”

Private contractors, like Verra Mobility, often install the school-zone systems and are paid back through the fines the localities collect. The cameras are similar to those used catch red-light running, which snap photos of license plates after cars enter the intersection after the light changes red.

Nearly a dozen localities in Virginia already have red-light cameras, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports.

I slow my roll in school zones. I’d hate to hurt a child or someone protecting others because of my own carelessness or impatience.

That doesn’t mean I’m always a saint. I’ve been cited three times by roadway speed cameras in the District of Columbia and adjacent Prince George’s County. The fines stung, even though I didn’t cause an accident.

I can complain about whether the speed limit should be higher on some thoroughfares — I’m talking about you, steep downhill stretch of Branch Avenue in Southeast D.C.! But the speed limits are posted and visible. The punitive approach teaches future compliance (at least for me it does).

Statistically, not a lot of crossing guards or officers have been killed or injured when you consider the thousands of schools across the country. The National Center for Education Statistics counted nearly 131,000 public and private K-12 schools nationwide in the 2017-18 school year. The bulk, almost 87,500, were elementary schools, or those educating our youngest children.

Information provided to me Tuesday, by email, from the U.S. Department of Labor showed 45 people were killed from 2018 to 2020 while serving as crossing guards or “flaggers” at road and highway construction sites. Some 2,260 were injured over the same years.

Those are relatively small numbers, given the expanse of the country.

Still, for the individual families grieving the losses or dealing with long-term disabilities, most of these incidents were preventable. Police officials and news stories often cite driver inattention (think smartphones and eating), speed, and recklessness as the principal culprits.

Go back even further, and you uncover cases like that of Lovette Person, a 35-year-old crossing guard struck and killed in Chesapeake in 2011. She was in uniform, wearing reflective gear and using a flag and whistle. The wife and mother was friendly and known as a comedian and fond of giving nicknames to the young charges she looked over.

The defendant pleaded guilty to improper driving — she was originally charged with reckless driving — and was fined just $250.

Other crossing guards have been killed or injured more recently nationwide, according to news reports.

Ashley Dias, 45, was killed and a child injured when a SUV struck them in Lafayette, California, last year. Witnesses told a TV station there the SUV was headed for a group of students when Dias pushed one child out of the vehicle’s path but was dragged under it. Prosecutors later filed misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges against the driver.

Then there’s the harrowing video of a police officer who was injured in February in Cecil County, Maryland. Cpl. Annette Goodyear threw a student out of the way as a car was barreling down. Goodyear survived the accident and later returned to the job. The local sheriff’s office cited the motorist for several violations, including negligent driving.

If the traffic cameras can prevent accidents like the ones I’ve described, that’s a good thing. The shutterbugs — carrying the threat of penalty — will make us more cognizant of the students and adults crossing the roads.

We’re supposed to slow down, anyway.

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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]