By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Alexandria school zones are about to become safer – and under more surveillance.
In an effort to bolster traffic safety in the city, the Alexandria Police Department will deploy five speed cameras in various school zones early next year. Each camera will be placed along a roadway and will automatically record speed limit violations, after which an officer will deny or affirm the violation and issue a citation of up to $100.
“The city has known for a long time that we keep people safe by engineering our streets in a way that encourages safe use of our streets, but also enforcement is a big piece of it,” Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said. “… It’s an important component to how people move around the city.”
Approximately $490,000 is allocated in the city’s budget toward the automated speed camera program.
The approval of the cameras follows an incident earlier this year in which a 9-year-old Alexandria child was struck by a car on the sidewalk near Jefferson-Houston PreK-8 IB School and subsequently hospitalized with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
Before that, in 2020, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a law that allows localities to install speed cameras in school and work zones. In 2021, APD then implemented a pilot program on North Beauregard Street to examine whether automated speed cameras would be viable in the city. The study revealed that 65% of vehicles drove above the posted 35-miles-per-hour speed limit. The highest recorded speed was 69 miles per hour.
During the pandemic, vehicle volumes decreased while speeds increased, according to city staff.
“Once the legislature approved speed cameras, the city began to methodically use data-driven [tests] to move in the direction of seeing that they’re viable,” Lambert said. “And once we determined that the technology was viable, City Council, in adoption of last year’s budget, told the city manager to move forward with implementation of the speed camera program.”
The camera program is part of Vision Zero, a controversial initiative with the stated goal of eliminating all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2028. The concept began in Sweden in 1997, and proposes that traffic deaths can be mitigated and prevented altogether through proper precautions such as education and enforcement.
According to the city’s website, Vision Zero “is a multidisciplinary, multi-national traffic safety concept that aims to achieve a transportation system with no deaths and serious injuries” with the specific intention of “saving lives on Alexandria’s streets.”
Speed cameras, Lambert said, are part of the Vision Zero goal, which T&ES has partnered with APD to develop.
“The way we approach Vision Zero is through a systems approach, so we are doing things with respect to both education, engineering and enforcement,” Lambert said. “[We’ve] worked closely over the years on a number of different projects and programs to make sure that we’re keeping residents safe.”
The City of Alexandria joins Arlington County and the City of Fairfax in implementing this program. Speed cameras are also common in Washington, D.C. and Maryland.
Lambert said T&ES is following a data-driven process to determine where the five speed cameras will be located throughout the city. This includes examining vehicle speeds, volume of traffic, number of students walking to schools and equity issues.
Once those locations are selected, the city will provide updates at the Sept. 26 Traffic and Parking Board meeting and at the Oct. 11 City Council legislative meeting.
APD Lieutenant Delton Goodrum said staff are working on selecting a vendor to supply the technology that will automatically issue tickets and send them to APD for vetting. Sworn officers then review the tickets and determine whether they are legitimate, and if so, send them to the violator. Factors such as inaccurate timing on the camera or technical defects could void a ticket, he noted.
“We have two officers that are responsible for going through the videos and looking at the citation and ensuring that the citation was issued legitimately,” Goodrum said.
Staff are also in the process of determining how much to issue per citation. State code allows officers to begin enforcement if the violator is at least 10 miles over the posted speed limit.
APD will then present the findings to City Council, which will vote on the fine amounts.
“The program ultimately is for safety. Obviously, we have to have some teeth in the program; ultimately, we want to keep the kids and the walkers safe and we want compliance,” Goodrum said. “We already know that half of drivers are gonna automatically comply because they’re gonna be paying attention … and then the other half may need a little reminder. That’s where the citations come in.”
The speed camera program has yielded mixed responses from residents. One resident, Daniel Childress, wrote on the I Love Alexandria Facebook page that speed cameras are the city’s attempt at a money grab.
“Speed cameras are just for revenue generation, before long they’ll have them more places,” Childress wrote. “Speed humps would be just as effective but do not generate revenue.”
“More revenue collection and surveillance. Lovely,” another resident, Jesse Gonzalez, wrote.
But arguably, the larger response has come from residents expressing support for the cameras. According to Lambert, the city most often hears from community members encouraging them to implement safety improvements, particularly around this time of year “when children are going back to schools [and] parents want to make sure that the speeds vehicles are traveling around schools come down.”
The city has been working closely with Alexandria City Public Schools, the School Board and the Parent-Teacher Association, all of which have expressed support for cameras.
The main goal is to protect both school-aged children and general community members by following the relevant data, which Lambert said explicitly shows that speed cameras can reduce the number of crashes by more than 50%.
“What we also know from the data is that speed cameras can help reduce the number of crashes,” Lambert said. “From our perspective, we think that up to this point it’s a proven safety tool and that’s the kind of thing we want to put in place to make sure we’re keeping kids safe as they’re trying to get to school.”