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State’s eyes are on you in work zones

Although the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic is playing havoc with the state’s construction timetable, the recent arrival of electronic cameras to identify speeders in work areas will give them some badly needed protection. March 9 ended the practice run for these new devices which are strategically located at seven so-called “hot spots” throughout the state. While none is located in our immediate area, several locations are frequented by motorists in the five-county Times News region.

Among them are I-78 between mile markers 35 and 43 in Berks County; the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike between mileposts 31 and 38 in Montgomery County where the toll road is being widened from four to six lanes; U.S. Route 1 in Bucks County; I-276 (Pennsylvania East-West Turnpike) in Bucks County; I-83 between mile markers 3 and 4 in York County, and locations in Philadelphia and Allegheny County.

Officially known as the Automated Work Zone Speed Enforcement systems, the devices use electronic speed timing mechanisms to detect and fine drivers exceeding posted work zone speed limits by 11 mph or more.

Enforcement began following a 60-day dry run that was required by Act 86 of 2018, the enabling legislation which has set up the enforcement effort.

The legislation was strongly supported by officials of the Pennsylvania State Police, the Turnpike Commission and the state Department of Transportation as a meaningful way to address the carnage that has occurred by speeding motorists in the state’s work zones.

In 2018, for example, there were 1,800 such crashes that resulted in 23 deaths. Since 1970, PennDOT has lost 89 workers in the line of duty; the Turnpike Commission has lost 45 employees since 1945.

Vehicle owners will receive a warning letter for a first offense, a $75 fine for a second offense, and a $150 fine for third and subsequent offenses. These violations are civil penalties only; no points will be assessed to driver’s licenses.

Given the number of deaths and injuries that crashes in these zones have caused, these penalties seem light. I would have thought that after a second offense there would be some serious points assessed or license suspensions. Maybe there will be amendments to the legislation once the program is up and running for awhile. Let’s hope so.

Turnpike Commission CEO Mark Compton assured motorists that this is not a ruse to stockpile money for the ailing toll-road system, which is being further hit by reduced driving during the pandemic. “The goal is to build awareness and, most importantly, to change unsafe driving behaviors,” Compton said. “The program serves as a reminder that safety is literally in each driver’s hands when they are behind the wheel.”

Acting PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian agreed. “We are urging motorists to slow down and pay attention while driving, especially through work zones where roadway conditions can change on a daily basis,” she said.

These new devices are operational only in active work zones. Motorists will have plenty of warning through appropriate signage that they are approaching one of these camera areas.

Under terms of the law, the registered owner of the vehicle in violation must be notified within 90 days of the infraction. In most cases, officials said, the notice will be mailed shortly after the violation has occurred.

The owner is liable for any penalty, regardless of who is driving. If the fine is not paid within 90 days of the original violation notice, the matter will be turned over to a state-approved collection agency.

Some legislators and civil liberties groups were concerned about safeguarding a vehicle owner’s privacy, so the law has incorporated a provision that images collected by the surveillance cameras can be used only for this program. Images are to be destroyed within a year after final disposition of cases, except in cases where their elimination is prohibited by court order.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com