Iowa cities mull options if traffic cameras are banned

Friday, March 23, 2012 | 5:26 p.m. CDT

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa cities that take in millions of dollars a year from automated traffic enforcement cameras are mulling over their options if lawmakers force them to shut off the devices.

Legislation that would require the cameras to be removed by July 1 passed out of the House Appropriations Committee, moving it to the list of measures that can be called up for full House debate this year.

The proposal nearly died earlier in the session when it failed to move forward after support for it subsided, but it was saved by Republican House leaders.

It passed the committee 14 to 11 on Wednesday with mostly Republican support. If it passes the House, where Republicans have a majority, the bill's fate in the Senate is questionable. Democrats hold a narrow margin, and Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, suggested in January that he supports the cameras and believes they help reduce accidents.

Cameras are used in Cedar Rapids, Clive, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Muscatine and Sioux City. Iowa City's council voted in February to begin using the cameras.

Iowa isn't the only state interested in such a ban.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says nine states have passed laws that ban the use of automated enforcement. They are Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wisconsin. According to the website, Nevada prohibits the use of cameras unless operated by an officer or installed in a law enforcement vehicle or facility.

Proposals to prohibit the use of cameras were introduced in Arizona, Florida, Missouri and South Dakota but they did not pass. Illinois introduced, but did not pass, a bill in 2011 that would prohibit any municipality from issuing red-light citations for right turns. Texas passed a bill allowing automated enforcement at toll booths.

Law enforcement and city organizations in Iowa have lobbied to keep the cameras in place while civil liberties groups want the bill to pass so the cameras will have to come down.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa protests the monitoring because it creates a "Big Brother" atmosphere. The group also says cameras are unlikely to protect against the most dangerous drivers such as those driving drunk.

Another complaint is that the camera programs cite the car's owner regardless of who was driving, which the ACLU says presents a due process issue.

The group also complains that red-light cameras ticket drivers who might stop but encroach to closely on a crosswalk, and they say some cities have shortened the duration of the amber light to catch more red-light violators to boost revenue.

Since the Iowa bill is still very much alive some cities aren't counting on the money in the next fiscal year beginning in July.

"We've been careful in our budgeting for the next fiscal year not to rely on the funds because the state is debating the issue," said Randy Hill, the director of public works for the city of Muscatine. "We realize that there are so many members of the public that are so much opposed to these. A lot of those opposed to them have been caught."

To opponents who claim the cameras only serve as a revenue generator, Hill says they wouldn't raise a penny if people simply followed the law. He said the city has found the cameras reduce accidents at the monitored intersections.

The city, population just under 23,000, has five cameras. At the end of this month they will have been installed for a year. The program is on track to generate about $400,000 in fines.

For larger cities with interstate highways running through them, the revenue is significant.

Cedar Rapids has 11 permanently mounted red light and speed cameras at intersections and a mobile unit that catches speeders.

The city pulled in net revenue of $4.2 million last year and expects $4.6 million next year. About 8,800 violators are caught on camera each month. Most are speeding violations on Interstate 380.

Des Moines has five cameras to catch red-light violators. It also has a speed camera on Interstate 235 and a unit mounted in a vehicle that can be located anywhere in the city. Enforcement began last July.

In February, the cameras issued 4,122 citations, resulting in total revenue of more than $216,000. After the city paid the contractor who set up the cameras, it netted $120,000.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says 25 states have cities or counties with cameras — 14 with both speed and red-light units and 11 with red-light cameras only. The nonprofit organization, supported by the insurance industry, researches crashes.

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James Walker March 24, 2012 | 5:55 p.m.

If the bill to ban ticket cameras passes, the most important result will be improved traffic safety. Why? Because speed cameras ONLY produce profits when the posted speed limits are deliberately set below the safest level (85th percentile speed of free flowing traffic under good conditions). Red light cameras ONLY produce profits when the yellow intervals are deliberately set too short for the actual 85th percentile approach speeds of vehicles. Both engineering "errors" are done deliberately to produce more camera ticket revenue, at the expense of reduced safety. See the science on both issues on our website and then call your state Representatives and Senators to ask them to pass this ticket ban bill #2214 immediately.
James C. Walker, National Motorists Association,, Ann Arbor, MI

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