Speed cameras in Minnesota construction zones? Maybe, but not 'til 2023

The Fourth of July weekend saw hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans hitting the roads while dodging construction cones at more than 200 highway work zones across the state.

If some get their way, Minnesota will install speed cameras in work zones as soon as 2024. House lawmakers and traffic safety advocates say the technology is required after a year in which more people died in speed-related crashes than in any year since 2003, according to Minnesota State Patrol data.

The cameras -- which critics say raise significant legal questions -- were part of end-of-session negotiations this spring. Those broader talks broke down, leaving the effort for next year.

"The last two years have been an exercise in what lack of enforcement looks like on the roadways," Paul Aasen of the Minnesota Safety Council, who supports speed cameras, told House lawmakers this spring.

The proposal, initially sponsored by state Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, would have freed up $2.5 million for a pilot program in 2024 and 2025 to install speed cameras in state highway work zones.

Under the bill, fines would be $50. The cameras could take photos of license plates but not a person's face, and signs would be required warning drivers that a camera was ahead.

It follows a study conducted by a task force led by the Minnesota Department of Transportation that found excessive speeds -- defined as 15 miles per hour above the speed limit -- have increased since 2020. Drivers face a $300 fine for speeding in Minnesota work zones, but enforcement is challenging because there's often no space to pull cars over, the study found.

Communities in 18 states have speed camera programs, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an advocacy group. Several other states, including Wisconsin, have state laws that outlaw the devices.

Minnesota is in the middle, lacking a state law that specifically allows cameras. The issue is further muddied by a 2007 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that ended Minneapolis's red-light camera program.

"I am not opposed to them. I think it would be a good tool that could be used. What I’m searching for is a legal way to do it," state Sen. Scott Newman, the Republican chairman of the Senate Transportation committee, told FOX 9 in an interview. "You can’t just put up a camera, take a picture of a car going through, and send a ticket to the owner of the car. It just isn’t that simple."

In 2021, 166 people died in Minnesota speed-related crashes, well above the average of 100 deaths in the four previous years, according to State Patrol data. Speed-related deaths are happening less frequently in 2022, with the state recording 44 deaths through June 19, the agency said.

Minneapolis had more fatal crashes last year than at any time since 2008, Ethan Fawley, the city's Vision Zero program coordinator, told lawmakers this spring. Vision Zero is the city's traffic safety initiative.

"We are having a real surge in challenges related to speeding, and that’s had disastrous outcomes on our roadways," Fawley said. City officials declined to make Fawley available for an interview.

The camera pilot program was included in the House's state government omnibus bill this year. The Senate did not include the devices in its version of the bill.

Opponents say speed cameras are a step toward automatic enforcement, which they oppose.

"I don't want us to be a state like Illinois where there's a camera every 10 feet," state Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, said during a committee hearing this year.