Sheriff Donnie Craig fleshed out details last week on a potential plan for traffic enforcement cameras in front of two schools and on the stop arms of school buses, hoping to get more public comments on the use of the technology to slow speeds in school zones.
“I want to start a discussion on this,” said the sheriff.
He said adding cameras to the stop arm of school buses that photograph any drivers passing a stopped bus with its flashing lights “looks like a no brainer.”
Using automated cameras for speed enforcement in the school zones around Tate Elementary and Hill City Elementary, however, is a less obvious choice. A three-day study showed a problem with speeding motorists during both school hours and around-the-clock. Craig said they are moving in the direction of camera enforcement to address this, but the sheriff made plain they are open to further comments.
He said this is not just a sheriff’s office decision with the probate court, county government, and school board all involved, and added they are attentive to public sentiment.
At Tate Elementary, the speed limit on Highway 53 in front of the marble school is normally 35 mph, and that drops to 25 mph for school dropoff/pickup times. At Hill City, the school is farther off Highway 53 with the speed limit normally 55 mph, dropping to 45 for the dropoff/pickup.
A preliminary study August 27-29th by Verra Mobility [a potential contractor for the cameras] found a lot of speeding, with nearly 3,000 motorists going more than 11 miles over the speed limit in those three days at the two schools [see graphics for details]. However, most of these speeding cars were logged at Tate.
For example, with eastbound drivers during the study period, there were 2,735 total violations at Tate and only 65 violations during the same period of time eastbound in front of Hill City. Westbound numbers from both schools were similar.
At Hill City, Craig said the school is off the state highway a good ways, but the issue is with buses and parents trying to exit and then pull back on to Highway 53.
The speeding may be worsened as there are passing lanes on Highway 53 at the school zones, encouraging drivers to go faster.
“With the number of violations logged in Tate, it’s easy to see why so many people are complaining,” Craig said.
Craig and sheriff’s spokesman Captain Kris Stancil explained how the cameras generally work: contracting with a company, cameras will be installed on Highway 53 in front of Tate Elementary and Hill City Elementary. The cameras will automatically take a photo showing the tag number of any car travelling through the area going over the speed limit by a certain amount, likely to start at 11 miles per hour, which is the state standard. A sheriff’s office employee will review all violations before any tickets are mailed. Then the contractor will trace the address of the car’s owner and send a ticket. The state sets the fines that can be levied for automated systems at $75 for a first violation and $125 for all later violations.
Of the amount collected, the first $25 will be returned to the contractor to pay for the equipment and the rest will go to a special fund for public safety in this county. Once the cameras are paid for the contract will change, but that figure was not available.
One key point Craig and Stancil noted is that all violation reports are reviewed by a local sheriff’s office employee before tickets are mailed. They emphasize the program will remain in control of the local office, not an outside business. Also, the speeding threshold for giving tickets is managed by the sheriff’s office. A contractor could not lower it in order to give more tickets. Anyone challenging a fine/ticket will go to the local probate court.
Responding to general criticism of this type of automated policing, Craig and Stancil made it clear the program here will always be controlled locally by the sheriff’s office and courts.
It is important to note that in Georgia, automated tickets are a civil matter. Drivers who are caught by the cameras and fined would not receive any points on their licenses nor any criminal charge. However, should they ignore the ticket entirely, their car’s registration would be cancelled by the state and they would be subject to later arrest for that.
Craig said their plan is being considered to address concerns and complaints of speeding and passing stopped school buses, not as a revenue generator. He said ample signage warning that the cameras are being used for tickets will be installed and they will give a grace period of warnings.
“We may do this to deter speeding, not get money from it,” he said.
The sheriff’s office has posted information about this on their social media to take comments. Craig said 100 percent of the people have been in favor of the cameras on school bus stop arms and 90 percent were in favor of the cameras in school zones.
Responding to a few specific comments:
•Why are they not using the cameras at Dragon Drive? Craig said they may consider it there later, but the traffic problems and accidents there are not as closely tied to speed as there is already a stop light. They will put up more signage and flashing lights around this intersection.
•Who sets the limit for when tickets are issued? Craig said it would be up to the sheriff’s office, not the company to set the limits, and they will likely go with 11 miles over the speed limit as the threshold for a ticket. That is a standard amount over speeding that is used in Georgia.
•How would someone defend/challenge the ticket in court? Anyone could go to probate court and present their case. It could be a case where someone borrowed a car and they could argue this in court.
•What state laws govern this? It is all defined in House Bill 978.
•Why are the fines not higher for passing the stopped buses? Craig said he wished they could be but the fines for passing buses, just like the speeding, are set by the state.