Proposed cameras at intersections and for school and work zones could be ‘force multipliers’

Published 5:43 pm Friday, March 18, 2022

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Suffolk Police Chief Al Chandler calls the cameras proposed for key city intersections and school and work zones “force multipliers.”

And with his department 35 officers short of the 200 it is authorized to have and other city departments short-staffed, he and Public Works Director Robert Lewis are looking to what’s known as automated enforcement to improve safety on the roads.

Lewis and Chandler, during a March 16 City Council work session, outlined the program that could bring up to nine camera systems to city intersections, mobile camera units rotated in and out of work zones and either roadside or school bus STOP-arm cameras for school zones.

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The General Assembly authorized the use of photo-monitoring systems in 2007, with some revisions in 2015. In 2020, it voted into law the use of photo speed monitoring devices in highway work zones and school crossing zones.

By law, Suffolk would be allowed to have nine red light running camera systems – one intersection per 10,000 residents – though it could potentially set it up to make it appear there are more than that. Each camera system could operate focusing on just one direction, or all directions of an intersection.

The cameras could also be moved to different intersections as needs warrant. The systems would be connected to the signal itself, Lewis said, and would monitor the operation of that signal and would know when a specific signal goes red. There would be no limits on the number of school or work zones that could be monitored.

Lewis said the system would independently time itself after the red light, and after a brief, predetermined amount of time, any vehicles entering the intersection against a red light would be photographed by the system.

The company operating the system would process the photo and then would be reviewed by a Suffolk police officer before a ticket is issued. That ticket would go to the owner of the vehicle, not the driver, Lewis said.

Mapping apps such as Waze and Google Maps typically indicate intersections with red-light cameras.

“So in my mind, there’s really no excuse not to know that you’re in a monitored location,” Lewis said. “You should be obeying the law anyway, but again, this gives them ample warning.”

Before the city could set up those cameras, council members would have to approve an ordinance to allow them, and the city would have to complete an engineering safety analysis for the specific intersection, factoring in its accident rate, red-light running violation rate and the difficulty police have in safely catching violators, among other factors.

Once installed at an intersection, signs would need to be posted notifying drivers that the intersection is red-light photo enforced, and a Suffolk police officer would be required to inspect, verify and affirm any potential violations.

A private company can own, maintain and operate the system, but its compensation cannot be tied to the number of violations. The city would also be required to engage in a public awareness campaign before they go into effect.

Though it did not take red-light running into account, a 2013 Hampton Roads Regional Safety Study by the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization deemed the stoplight-controlled intersection of Portsmouth Boulevard, Nansemond Parkway and East Washington Street the most dangerous in Suffolk, followed by the intersection of Bennetts Pasture Road and Kings Highway and the intersection of Godwin Boulevard and Kings Fork Road, both also controlled by stoplights. The regional transportation planning organization was to begin the process of updating the study this year.

For school and work zone enforcement, only violations of at least 10 mph over the posted speed limit for those areas would be ticketed. Those also require signs to be posted at school locations, but no signs would be required if the system is installed on buses.

A Suffolk police officer would also have to inspect, verify and affirm any potential violations.

“We’re not trying to catch somebody going 2 mph” above the posted speed limit, Lewis said. “It is a minimum of 10 mph above the posted speed before these systems activate, or in the case of a stopped school bus, when the vehicle goes past a school bus when the warning lights and the arm is out.”

A work zone camera system could only be deployed where those zones have activity going on, Lewis said. Those systems will most likely be deployed in vehicles, allowing them to be easily shifted to different work zones.

In work zones, signs indicating photo enforcement would have to be there and on the vehicle or device itself.

Chandler said he would have to research what fines would be imposed, but they are generally set by ordinance. Tickets are charged to the registered owner of the vehicle, so it would not go against someone’s driving record.

Council feedback was largely favorable to the proposed cameras.

“We need to have something in the city area here that combats this type of behavior,” said Councilman Roger Fawcett.

He noted the backed-up traffic for several miles on U.S. Route 58 a couple of days earlier through the 3.1-mile work zone from the western edge of the Suffolk Bypass to the industrial park area.

“I’m a little perplexed that we don’t have some sort of police presence in those work zones anyway,” Fawcett said.

Lewis suggested that there are some areas where it is not safe for an officer to be, or to stop a vehicle. Chandler said he was aware of the issue and that area merits a closer look, but he said in such a circumstance, his officers could have done little to change the situation.

“Once it goes down to one lane with the volume of traffic that you have, there is no mechanism of getting that much traffic down to one lane,” Chandler said. “If I had an officer, if I had 12 officers out there, it would not have helped the situation because the volume of traffic that you had far exceeded what the roadway at that time was able to handle.”

Lewis said he has electronic control of the traffic signals and Public Works staff monitor them, and several times on March 14, when it took more than 35 minutes to get through the work zone on Route 58 (Holland Road), traffic engineers left the lights on green as if the city were evacuating people due to a hurricane. He and Chandler agreed that a traffic cop could not move traffic through as efficiently as can be done electronically.

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett said the school zone systems are needed, especially for the three schools within a few miles of each other on Nansemond Parkway.

Lewis said the next step after council’s input would be to bring it a proposed ordinance and possible locations to deploy the cameras, solicit proposals for service in conformance with Public Procurement Act requirements and develop a public information campaign for residents.

“We tell the public what we’re doing,” Lewis said. “We’re not going to hide it. We’re not trying to catch them doing something wrong. We’re trying to correct bad behavior and keep everybody safe on the highway.”