Why did hundreds of Fairfax Co. drivers mistakenly receive speed camera tickets?

A sign denotes a new speed camera on Fairfax Boulevard, near Fairfax High School, on the morning of Nov. 1, 2021. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

On July 20, Fairfax County resident Gary Steinberg drove by Key Middle School in Springfield, Virginia — an area his wife Daphne said the couple is very familiar with.

The two were surprised when they received a speeding ticket in the mail weeks later. The citation accused Gary of driving 36 mph in a zone with a posted speed of 25 mph. The image of his car was captured by a speed camera nearby, one of several cameras Fairfax County placed near schools earlier this year.

Daphne and Gary were both aware of the speed camera, and upon looking at the violation notice, Gary recalled that the school zone’s flashing lights weren’t on. That meant he was complying with the 35 mph posted limit instead of 25 mph, the requirement for when the lights are flashing.

The ticket arrived at their house after the listed due date, Daphne said, and because there was an additional fine for paying late, she said they paid the $50 right away. But, after reading about similar experiences on social media and speaking to some people in county government, Daphne said it was clear the violation was invalid.

Gary Steinberg is one of about 2,800 people who were wrongfully fined — and who will receive refunds, said Fairfax County police 2nd Lt. Ian Yost. Weeks later, however, the Steinbergs said they’re still waiting for a refund, and Yost said there’s no timeline for when it will be issued.

“It just left a very bad taste in my mouth,” Daphne said. “They gave us an invalid ticket.”

In a Facebook post last month, Fairfax County police said flashing lights weren’t working properly near Irving Middle School and London Towne Elementary School in July. The department later said speed camera citations issued near Key Middle School from July 17 to July 28 would be voided or refunded.

As of last week, Yost said the lights are functioning as they should be, in time for the beginning of the new school year. There’s nothing wrong with the actual cameras, he said.

Police, Yost said, got an affidavit from Fairfax County Public Schools listing the times the flashing lights should be on. While the department has periodically had officers physically check to make sure the lights are flashing when they should be, Yost said that doesn’t happen daily.

The cameras do capture video of cars speeding through a school zone, Yost said, but they don’t capture the flashing lights.

Meanwhile, Gary wondered whether enough testing had been done before the speed camera program was launched.

“It’s very discouraging that county leaders would allow someone like me to have to go through this long process to get a refund for a violation I did not commit,” he said.

Anyone who was impacted by the error will notified by mail, police said.

The cameras, police previously said, have been effective in slowing drivers down. They were installed in February, and over 23,000 cars were caught going 10 or more miles per hour above the speed limit in April, May and June combined.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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