Richard Diamond lives in Alexandria and is a senior director at the White House Writers Group.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has until midnight on March 26 to decide whether speed cameras should be unleashed on Old Dominion highways. A bill that would expand the use of automated ticketing machines sits on the governor’s desk. Before he pulls out his pen to sign the measure, Northam ought to take note of the reaction to the government’s abuse of motorists in France.
Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron lowered speed limits on speed-camera-infested secondary roads and proposed a big gas tax hike. Tens of thousands of outraged drivers put on yellow vests to take part in anti-Macron demonstrations that have persisted for months. Activists torched, spray-painted or decapitated 3 out of every 4 of the nation’s speed cameras, reducing the 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in ticket cash that had been expected.
Motorists everywhere resist having their pockets picked, but we’re more civilized about it in Virginia. A dozen years ago, then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) signed an “abuser fee” scheme that added a fine of up to $1,050 on certain driving offenses, including speeding and failing to give a proper signal. After being hit with the outrageous fines, constituents bombarded the state with complaints. Trial judges said the law was unconstitutional. More than 175,000 people signed a petition demanding an end to the fees.
Within a year, Kaine signed an unconditional repeal that refunded every dime the state had collected.
That’s why Northam should reject the “highway work zone” speed camera scheme hatched in a Richmond backroom deal. The plan was rushed through the legislative process so fast that there was no media coverage, news release or other announcement until after it was far too late for the public to weigh in. Lawmakers know this is going to be unpopular; they don’t care.
The bill includes a few limitations on camera use, but they’re mostly for show. The Virginia State Police can hire a private, for-profit company to mail out fully automated $125 tickets in highway work zones as long as a handheld photo speed monitoring device claims that a car exceeded the speed limit by at least 12 mph. There also have to be a warning sign and a police car with flashers active near the camera.
Maryland’s state-run work zone ticketing program operates under similar restrictions, and they are routinely flouted. In January, a speed camera van was caught hiding behind a port-a-potty on Interstate 270. As long as there’s an orange cone nearby, it qualifies as a work zone — no actual work needs to be done.
Though the 12 mph buffer before a ticket is issued might sound generous, everything depends on the accuracy of the speed reading. The proposed Virginia law states that whatever the camera says is presumed accurate, with no requirement that the system’s integrity be independently verified. After Baltimore was caught issuing automated speeding tickets to parked cars, an audit found 10 percent of tickets were based on bogus readings that affected tens of thousands of drivers.
Is it worth falsely accusing a few thousand people if the program saves one life? Maybe, but these cameras won’t make the roads safer. Some drivers will use information from the Waze app and slow down well in advance of a trap. Others will be taken by surprise and slam on the brakes to avoid getting a ticket. This creates unnecessary conflict and the potential for a rear-end collision — a concern that is not theoretical.
The Virginia Department of Transportation documented a 42 percent increase in rear-enders at red-light camera intersections in the state, along with an 18 percent increase in injuries, after its review of the first 10 years of photo enforcement. Britain’s premier medical journal, the BMJ, found the government’s assertion that cameras cut accidents by a third over a decade was bogus. By reviewing hospital admission records, researchers found a slight increase in the road accident injury rate. Official statistics showed a decline because local police downplayed serious collisions on accident reports near speed cameras.
Unfortunately, the Virginia scheme also gives state police an incentive to fudge the numbers, because the program is specifically designed to boost the department’s budget by 10 percent.
With enough problems on his hands, Northam would do well to steer clear of this mire. Virginia’s speed camera legislation should be vetoed.