Ruth Hill is a crossing guard at Clark Elementary School. She regularly has drivers swear at her, flash their middle fingers and even pull over to confront her as she tries to enforce the 15-mile-per-hour speed limit near the school, she says.
Those drivers are often barreling down Monticello Avenue after exiting Interstate 64 still traveling at highway speeds, according to Hill.
“We flag them down,” Hill told Charlottesville City Council on Monday night. “It just seems like it doesn’t help.”
She could be getting some help soon though.
City Council on Monday voted unanimously to move forward with a plan that would allow the use of speed cameras outside Clark and Johnson elementary schools as well as Buford Middle School in the city.
Monday night’s meeting was just the first reading of the resolution for the planned cameras. City staff will have to determine how the plan would actually be carried out.
The resolution was prompted by a letter from city school crossing guards asking for traffic cameras to help enforce school zone speed limits. It also comes after motorists in the Charlottesville area struck and killed two pedestrians last month, one in the city and the other just outside city limits in Albemarle County.
“Speed is a major contributor to traffic and pedestrian deaths, and we feel helpless to stop these flagrant violations of the law that threaten student safety,” the letter reads.
The number of students who walk to school in Charlottesville has been on the rise since the school division expanded walk zones, which it has called “family responsibility zones,” in response to the bus driver shortage. Charlottesville City Schools has upped walk zones to three-quarters of a mile for elementary school students and 1.25 miles for secondary school students. Some students at Charlottesville High School have a walk zone of more than 1.5 miles. Today, roughly 1,100 Charlottesville students live within a walk zone.
Council’s recent resolution would allow speed cameras to go up on Monticello Avenue for Clark and Cherry Avenue for Johnson and Buford. City staff said it chose those locations based on how many students walk to those schools, the number of violations observed by crossing guards and the volume and speed of traffic in those areas.
The state law that lets localities set up speed cameras near schools says they can be no closer than 1,000 feet of the schools. Once operational, it would be up to a third-party vendor to review footage of potential violations and refer them to the Charlottesville Police Department, according to the city. The fines drivers pay for breaking the speed limit would fund the program, since the vendor charges a fixed cost, city traffic engineer Brennen Duncan said.
Both the crossing guards and the urban planning advocacy group Livable Cville have raised concerns about the enforcement of traffic violations in Charlottesville. Penalties, they say, could disproportionately affect low-income residents and Black and brown people.
Matthew Gillikin, co-chair of Livable Cville, told The Daily Progress on Tuesday he hoped the city would mitigate those impacts by “issuing warnings for first offenses, keeping fines low, capping late fees and offering a low-cost alternative to fines, such as a driver education course.”
That said, Gillikin said traffic cameras would also help low-income and minority populations.
Black pedestrians are twice as likely to be killed by drivers as white pedestrians, according to the 2022 “Dangerous by Design” report by Smart Growth America, a nonprofit organization focused on urban development.
And speed cameras have been shown to both reduce the number of car crashes in an area and make them less fatal, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But more needs to be done to keep pedestrians safe, Gillikin said.
Many living in the Charlottesville say they don’t walk or bike to destinations because they are scared of being hit by a car, according to a Piedmont Environmental Council mobility survey presented to City Council in January. The survey cited a lack of sidewalks and protected bike lanes.
Charlottesville has instituted a Safe Routes to Schools program, which aims to create safe and convenient opportunities for children to walk or bike to school.
“Charlottesville has been working to improve the safety of walking and bicycling to school by providing and enhancing sidewalks, crosswalks, pedestrian signals, bike lanes, bike racks, and other multi-modal facilities near its schools,” according to the local Safe Routes to Schools website.
But the program needs to produce more permanent outcomes, Gillikin said, if it’s to be effective.
“The city needs to convert the quick builds done for Safe Routes to School into permanent redesigns and increase investment in that area,” Gillikin said.
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