Virginia lawmakers have approved legislation that would allow state troopers to use handheld speed cameras to issue citations in work zones. The bill awaits the governor’s signature. (Tracy A. Woodward/Washington Post)

Virginia lawmakers have approved legislation to allow the commonwealth’s first speed-camera program, a significant shift for the state, which has been slow to embrace technology that has long been used by law enforcement in the District, Maryland and elsewhere.

The legislation, if signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, would allow Virginia State Police troopers to use the cameras only in highway work zones. A trooper’s vehicle would have to have its blue flashing lights activated — and signs warning of camera use would have to be placed within 1,000 feet of the work zone.

Tickets would be issued for vehicles traveling at least 12 mph over the posted speed limit. As in Maryland and the District, the $125 citation would be sent by mail. State Sen. Bill Carrico (R-Grayson), the legislation’s sponsor, said in bill hearings that drivers would be able to contest the fine.

A spokeswoman for Northam (D) said he “will review this bill once it reaches his desk,” but she declined to say whether the governor supports the measure.

Although the program would be limited in its scope, it would signal an important tryout of automated enforcement in Virginia after years of opposition to plans for widespread deployment of speed cameras.

“It’s a good start. It at least gets people used to notion of cameras recording their license plates, but it is only a baby step,” said Paul F. Reynolds, a professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Virginia, who has studied speeding in the Charlottesville area and has advocated for the use of speed cameras in the state.

More than 130 communities throughout the United States have speed-camera programs and 422 have red-light cameras, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Maryland and the District are known as national leaders in their use of automated speed enforcement.

In Virginia, several proposals for use of the technology on state highways and near school zones have failed in recent years. The work-zone bill, however, was easily approved, with lawmakers citing the dangers of work zones due to lane shifts and uneven pavement, as well as the need to protect workers.

According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, there were 12 work-zone fatalities in the state in 2017, up 20 percent from 2016. Crashes were up nearly 10 percent at 2,666. Nationwide, 4 out of 5 work-zone fatalities are drivers, and there are about 700 such fatalities each year, according to VDOT.

Supporters of the bill say cameras will provide authorities with an important enforcement tool — and deter speeders — particularly in areas such as Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, where there is a significant amount of roadwork.

“It’s safer than pulling someone over on the highway,” state Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) said during a discussion of the proposal last month. “And it’s really a bonus to the citizens if they are not getting traffic points here, they are just getting a civil penalty.”

Lawmakers are requiring the cameras be used only when a state trooper is physically present. A Virginia State Police official told lawmakers that the agency would be prepared to begin training for the use of the technology if the bill is signed into law.

Virginia’s program would be much more restrictive than Maryland’s work-zone speed-camera program and, in general, very small when compared with the District’s and Maryland’s school-zone program, which allows hundreds of cameras in many of the state’s jurisdictions.

In Maryland, work-zone speed cameras are generally placed on mobile sport-utility vehicles hidden on the shoulder of the work zone, and violators are ticketed for exceeding the posted work-zone speed limit by 12 mph or greater. The cameras operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and tickets incur a $40 fine. Police are not required to be present. School-zone violations also carry a $40 fine.

Maryland has allowed speed cameras in work zones since 2009.

According to a AAA analysis, Maryland issued more than 1.3 million work-zone speed camera tickets in a four-year period, from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2016, collecting about $54 million in fines. Data also indicates that the number of work-zone fatalities has declined in Maryland since the implementation of the automated enforcement system.

The District deploys speed cameras in about 300 locations and targets areas with chronic speeding problems. In 2017, the city issued more than 1 million speed-camera tickets and brought in nearly $104 million in revenue.

Revenue collected from Virginia would go to the state police budget.

But some motorists and advocates are concerned that this is just the beginning of a more widespread system of automated enforcement in Virginia, following the District and Maryland, said John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic.

They “worry if this is the proverbial ‘camel’s nose under the tent,’ ” he said.

Others are concerned the program is too limited.

In a two-year experiment, Reynolds, the U-Va. professor emeritus, said he tracked 4 million cars on the streets of Charlottesville, recording all kinds of speeding infractions.

Speed-camera programs like those in Maryland and the District, he said, would help deter the behavior.

“They work. They slow people down,” Reynolds said. “A lot of people don’t like them because they say they generate revenue, but they only generate revenue because people speed.”