How police are using cameras in school zones to catch speeders

As more localities use or talk about adding technology, our team sees if it’s really a solution to speeding problem

There’s a law recently passed in Virginia that allows cameras to help police school zones and highway work zones, and give out $100 tickets to those going 10 mph or more.

As more and more localities are using the technology, or talking about adding the technology, the Solutionaries team is working for you on if it’s really a solution to the speeding problem.

“The best way to defeat the camera is to slow down,” Altavista Police Chief Tommy Merricks said. “We’re not trying to play ‘Gotcha’ -- we’re just trying to slow people down.”

“A lot of it is just the speed. If it keeps one person from speeding again, I’m OK with it,” said Katie Maulbeck, who lives near one of the local schools.

“First and foremost, our kids are our most precious resource. It makes sense. It makes people I think a little bit more vigilant and a little bit more aware,” said Dr. James Rinella, Director of Operations for Campbell County Public Schools. “Just be patient. You know, be patient around the school zones, be aware, act as if these children are your children.”

This set up is outside Altavista Elementary School to capture license plates of drivers who are speeding through school zones. (Copyright 2024 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

The town of Altavista was the first in Virginia to use cameras to enforce school zones after the 2020 legislation passed. The police chief said they have more students walking to and from the combined middle and high school. For city leaders, taking action there was personal.

“One of my classmates was killed crossing right there,” Mayor Mike Mattox told WSLS previously. “I remember that accident. It sticks with me today. We don’t ever want one of those to happen in this area again or anywhere.”

“Technology has been good to us. Body cameras, in car cameras, they help court cases, they help transparency and we felt this technology could be a good thing as well,” Merricks said.

There is a second school zone using the technology in the town at Altavista Elementary School, where they see the most speeding.

Merricks blames it on the entrance to the school and the number of businesses on the four feeder roads that lead to the school.

“We’re talking about children, and children don’t necessarily have the capacity or understanding [of] how long does it take a motor vehicle to stop?” Rinella said. “The kids are our most precious resource, and it’s our collective responsibility to do what we can to protect them and then just an understanding, they’re learning too. They’re learning school safety, bus safety, how to walk across the street, how to walk in a school zone.”

Merricks walked our team through how the cameras work in the school zones. For an hour before and after school begins and ends, the school zone lights flash and the speed goes from 35 mph down to 25 mph. If a vehicle is captured going 10 mph or more over the speed limit during that time, the driver will be cited for a speed violation.

The cameras capture the vehicle’s back license plate, and the company who runs the equipment sends the pictures and information to Altavista police to be reviewed before a speeding violation can be mailed.

Virginia code requires police to certify the information, and Merricks showed our team multiple violations over a three-day period as he was reviewing the citations. The biggest speeder we reviewed together was someone going 40 mph in that 25 mph school zone.

“Do you just have to not care that it’s a school zone?” our team asked.

“They’re just not paying attention, not familiar probably with the consequences of doing it,” Merricks said. “$100 is nothing compared to somebody being hurt.”

People who live near the Altavista combined school see the possible catastrophe of middle or high school students getting hurt.

“One of the biggest concerns is just a simple mistake someone makes one day and somebody gets injured or hit. With my nephew and niece being one of the ones that walk to and from the building every day, I’m always concerned,” Maulbeck said. “Someone might come across too quick and not see the students stepping out of the sidewalk and it wouldn’t take much for an accident to happen.”

Altavista is a small town of less than 4,000 people, with a small police department, too. Merricks calls the school zone cameras a “force multiplier.”

“It means the school zones can be manned even when my officers are busy, and it’s also something that’s very fair. These cameras don’t know who you are. They don’t know what kind of car you drive, what you look like, because they pick up the back ends of the cars, so it’s a very fair system. There’s no profiling or anything like that,” said Merricks, who believes it’s good technology, too.

These cameras are pointed at the school zone signs to make sure they are flashing when tickets are issued. (Copyright 2024 by WSLS 10 - All rights reserved.)

“The cameras are really good, but there are some times to where depending on where the sun is and whatever, it just didn’t come out good,” said Merricks, as he showed our team a license plate picture that is hard to make out and dark. “This particular one, the tag is very dark, you can faintly make out the tag number. But I’m not comfortable with that. I would rather give somebody the benefit of the doubt with that. I’ll reject that.”

The police chief says many people think camera systems and automated systems are like a cash cow, but Merricks said, “It’s not for us. I hope we don’t issue any tickets.”

In 2023, data from Altavista school zone cameras showed:

  • Citations mailed: 1,656
  • Citations paid: 945
  • Civil penalties collected: $94,004

Merricks said if you don’t pay by the due date, you will get a second notice and then it can go to collections. The police chief is looking forward to a full year of data in 2024 to be able to compare the numbers and see if fewer people are speeding.

The cameras run at no cost to taxpayers. Altumint, the company who runs the cameras, gets $25 of each $100 citation, whether it’s paid or not.

“These programs, even if it’s two cameras versus 200 cameras, you still see a positive effect and reduction in incidents. There’s multiple studies out there that show there’s about a 30% decrease in the severity and the frequency of accidents in municipalities where they have speed enforcement cameras,” Altumint CEO Holly Cooper said.

“Arrivals and dismissal times at schools are the most busy times and the riskiest times for pedestrians and for motorists,” Rinella said.

Merricks said the fastest someone has gone through the school zone is 49 mph in a 25 mph.

“The National Highway Transportation Safety Board has done some studies that speed is exponentially regulated to severity of crashes. The faster people are going the more dangerous it is for children,” Merricks said.

The police chief said he has talked to other locations around Virginia who are interested in implementing the same school zone enforcement measures. There has been a learning curve in Altavista. Merricks said they first launched the cameras during summer school in 2022 and it resulted in hundreds of tickets and angry citizens. He said people were not used to the schedules during summer school. They made the decision to throw out all the tickets and refund the ones that had already been paid.

They also worked with Altumint to add cameras that would show if the school zone signs were flashing when they should be, so people couldn’t use that as an excuse to get out of the ticket.

There are not very many limitations to what the technology can do, according to the company and police.

“In terms of limitations on the technology, there’s not really a whole lot. Our offering allows you to capture up to six lanes of roadway. It is really accurate,” said Cooper, who adds the company works with multiple jurisdictions across Virginia for both work zone and school zone enforcement.

“If there’s a downside to it. It could be human error. You know, we learn and only hope to get better,” Merricks said.

“I know our police department can’t have everybody everywhere. If it keeps one person from speeding again. I’m OK with it,” Maulbeck said.

“It’s not about the money or revenue. It’s about slowing people down,” Merricks said.

Altumint said over a six-month period in Suffolk, Va., there were 137,954 citations in work zones. In a single month, through using work zone speed enforcement cameras, Suffolk saw a 50% decrease in violations (June to July 2023), with a continued month-of-month decrease in violations in work zones.

The Altavista police chief said Virginia law dictates that the citation is mailed to the owner of the vehicle, but you can transfer the liability to another person if you were not the one driving. In addition, the citation is a civil violation and not reported to the DMV, so you won’t see an increase in your car insurance bill.

The Wythe County Sheriff’s Office already uses it in school zones. Blacksburg and Montgomery County are both looking to add the technology in schools zones.

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About the Author

You can see Jenna weekday mornings at the anchor desk on WSLS 10 Today from 5-7 a.m. She also leads our monthly Solutionaries Series, where we highlight the creative thinkers and doers working to make the world a better place.

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