‘It’s a money grab.’ Metro drivers say school zone cameras more about profit than safety

ATLANTA — Speed cameras are popping up in school zones all over metro Atlanta. They’re touted as keeping students safe.

But a 3-month Channel 2 Action News investigation reveals that these speed cameras are a multimillion-dollar business in Georgia.

“It’s aggravating,” said Walton County mother Brandy Coble.

She was talking about the $80 ticket she got after a camera caught her speeding behind South Gwinnett High School, where there isn’t a crosswalk, in April.

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Snellville is one of about 50 local governments that signed up with RedSpeed USA to install cameras to crack down on school zone speeders driving 10 or more miles per hour over the speed limit before, after and during the school day.

“I didn’t know the camera was in place,” said Coble.

RedSpeed pays for the cameras, but local police officers review the video before sending out tickets. The tickets don’t carry any points on a driver’s license.

Carolyn Magruder of Alpharetta got a $75 ticket for speeding in front of Haynes Bridge Middle School but contested it because the school was on remote learning that day.

“And a couple weeks later, I got a letter in the mail along with a $75 check,” said Magruder.

A 2018 Georgia law allowed speed detection companies like RedSpeed to set up shop in Georgia, partnering with local governments with the school district’s approval.

The Alpharetta Department of Public Safety believes the cameras are working, telling Channel 2 only 8% of tickets are going to repeat offenders.

“It’s actually causing change and people aren’t repeating behavior from the first citation,” said Jeff Ross with Alpharetta Police.

The Snellville Police Department told Channel 2 it has seen a reduction in school zone accidents but could not provide specific numbers.

Channel 2 filed dozens of open records requests and got Brookhaven’s contract with RedSpeed, which shows the company gets a 35% cut of the money and the rest goes to the police department.

It’s big business.

The city of South Fulton, which signed with rival camera company Blue Line Solutions, made more than $1.7 million between January 1, 2020, and January 31, 2021.

Norcross made nearly $1.5 million between September 2020 and January 31, 2021.

“Absolutely, it’s a money grab. If it were more about public safety, they would have their police officers sitting out detecting the speed,” Coble said.

But not every parent sees this as a blatant example of policing for profit.

“I think for this particular use in school zones, it’s a no brainer,” said Dunwoody father David Ziskind.

He walks his son to Vanderlyn Elementary School most days and said it’s not uncommon to see drivers flying through his neighborhood.

“Actually, had a neighbor last year had a run in crossing the street, just down the street from me and thought he and his son were going to get hit on the way to school,” said Ziskind.

The cities of Dunwoody, Chamblee, Doraville and Brookhaven all signed deals with RedSpeed, but emails we requested show DeKalb County Schools has not approved the cameras yet, initially citing the pandemic and a new superintendent.

“I’m just not sure what the holdup is,” said Ziskind.

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Channel 2 emailed DeKalb County Schools, but they declined to comment.

Emails Channel 2 received written by police to a RedSpeed Senior Vice President suggest the delay is all about money.

One from Chamblee Police emails reads: “I heard that the DeKalb Superintendent will be sending out an MOU and approving permits. I guess we will see if they demand a cut.”

Another email from Doraville Police reads: “For the ones in Dekalb County has the school system been receiving a percentage? The ‘rumor’ is they will only give approval if they receive a percentage.”

Doraville City Councilman Andy Yeoman voted against signing the deal with RedSpeed.

“I wasn’t really convinced that we had speeding issues in our school zones,” Yeoman said.

Channel 2′s open records requests showed in many cities, RedSpeed did the traffic studies used to justify the need for the cameras.

“And when I started to ask questions, they, they weren’t able to really provide any data to back up that this was actually needed,” Yeoman said.

RedSpeed emailed us this statement:

“Automated enforcement of school zones protects children by changing driver behavior. By law, motorists are provided a 30-day warning period and bright visible signage.

“Additionally, cities release PSAs and other public education materials to increase driver awareness. Drivers quickly adjust to the cameras, reduce speed and pay closer attention to the roadway.

“The camera penalty is much lower than an officer-written speeding ticket ($75 versus $200+) and the number of tickets drops heavily once enforcement begins. Small changes in speed make huge differences in accident avoidance and risk of serious injury or death. We are proud to be saving lives.”

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William Perry with Georgia Ethics Watchdogs views the speed detection cameras as a blatant example of policing for profit.

“Trying to make money off the backs of your citizens, it’s just wrong,” Perry said.

Earlier this year, lawmakers introduced a bill that would remove school districts from the process.

“When you’re taking them away from it, you’re opening yourself up to special interests and control by people who are looking for profits, not solutions,” Perry said.

The bill didn’t pass, despite RedSpeed donating more than $50,000 in campaign contributions to Georgia politicians.

“It’s what’s eroding the trust of people in our government,” Perry said.

Channel 2′s Michael Seiden sent multiple emails to four of the bill’s sponsors. Two of them received campaign contributions from RedSpeed.

So far, none of them has responded to his request for comment.