Work zone speed cameras get second look as fatalities rise

More states are green-lighting the use of automated speed cameras following an alarming rise in work zone fatalities.
FILE – Speed cameras are aimed at U.S. Route 127, in New Miami, Ohio, Feb. 25, 2014 . Under federal guidance issued Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, states can now tap billions of federal highway dollars for roadway safety programs such as automated traffic enforcement. They are being told that cameras that photograph speeding vehicles are an established way to help bring down rising traffic deaths. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)

More states are green-lighting the use of automated speed cameras following an alarming rise in work zone fatalities.

Six of the at least 10 states that now allow automated speed cameras in highway construction zones — Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia — granted authorization within the past four years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Several other states — including Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma and West Virginia — have recently considered work zone camera legislation. More states may follow in 2023, including Washington State, whose transportation department said it plans to bring a proposal to lawmakers in January.

“We really believe the time has come to implement proven safety tools such as automated speed safety cameras to encourage … behavior change in work zones,” said Ted Bailey, a program manager with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The Washington State effort has the backing of a union and industry-supported coalition that has launched a #DriveSaferWA public awareness campaign.

The expansion of the controversial enforcement mechanism — which is banned in several states — comes as the number of crash-related deaths in work zones shot up from 757 in 2018 to 857 in 2020, according to tracking by the National WorkZone Safety Information Clearinghouse. The majority of people who died were motorists, but an estimated 51 of the 2020 fatalities were workers who were on foot at the time of their deaths.

It also comes as highway construction is poised to rev up due to federal infrastructure spending. Under the law signed by President Biden last year, states can use highway funding dollars to purchase speed cameras.

“The statistics make it abundantly clear that everyone is at risk in work zones,” Stacy Tetschner, president and CEO of the American Traffic Safety Services Association, said in an April statement.

While not popular with motorists, a 2008 study in Illinois found that speed photo enforcement in work zones was effective in getting drivers to slow down. The percentage of speeding cars dropped from 40% to 8% and none of the vehicles exceeded the posted speed limit by more than 10 mph, according to the study.

Washington State conducted a work zone camera pilot project in 2009 and recorded a reduction in speeds, but the idea stalled.

Last year, the state of Maryland reported that after deploying cameras it saw a 90% drop in vehicles traveling 12 or more mph over the speed limit through work zones.

The Biden administration is encouraging states to take a second look at speed camera technology as part of its National Roadway Safety Strategy.

“Automated speed enforcement, if deployed equitably and applied appropriately to roads with the greatest risk of harm due to speeding, can provide significant safety benefits and save lives,” said a 42-page strategy document released in January.

But the push to expand the use of work zone speed cameras does not sit well with opponents.

“We’re concerned it’s a gateway … then all of a sudden your whole state is blanketed with speed cams,” said Shelia Dunn of the National Motorists Association.

The NMA, which got its start in the early 1980s fighting the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Law, has compiled 10 reasons it objects to electronic speed enforcement. That list includes concerns about false radar readings, an emphasis on ticket volume and delays in notification.

“We think that there are better ways to educate the public and inform them that they need to slow it down,” Dunn said.

Dunn suggested improving barriers between highway workers and passing vehicles and said states could more aggressively enforce work zone speeds with emphasis patrols. Many states already impose double fines for speeding in work zones.

But work zone safety experts say traditional speed enforcement in construction zones – where lanes are often narrow and shoulders non-existent – can be tricky.

“I think cameras are viewed as another tool in the toolbox to combat the rise in fatalities,” said Jerry Ullman, a senior research engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which maintains the National WorkZone Safety Information Clearinghouse.

Earlier this year, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association endorsed speed zone cameras as a way to cut down on crashes and deaths. In its policy statement, the ARTBA cautioned that cameras should not be “perceived as a revenue mechanism” and urged the use of “ample, clear signage” warning drivers that photo enforcement is in use.

State lawmakers are applying some guardrails as they expand the use of automated cameras, according to tracking by NCSL.

Delaware’s 2020 law only allowed speed cameras on a particular section of I-95 in the Wilmington area while construction was underway.

In Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, lawmakers authorized pilot studies of work zone cameras. The Vermont legislature approved a feasibility study.

Virginia authorized speed cameras for work and school zones in 2020, but capped the fines at $100 and said drivers could only be ticketed for traveling 10 mph or more over the posted speed limit. As of January of this year, the Department of State Police reported that no agencies had installed photo speed monitoring devices.