Critics question new Iowa City external school bus cameras

Group believes stop-arm cameras violate Iowa City surveillance ban


Critics say newly installed stop-arm cameras on Iowa City school buses violate the city’s traffic camera ban that, when adopted in 2013, was considered rare and possibly unique nationally.

At minimum, they said these cameras, which help identify motorists passing school buses illegally, violate the spirit of the law.

“Luckily for Iowa City, Chapter 11 of Title 9 of the City Code makes this ill-conceived money-grabbing scheme illegal,” said Aleksey Gurtovoy, one of the founders of Stop Big Brother, which led the successful petition drive to ban red light cameras, speed cameras, and other surveillance tools, “I guess nobody on the school board bothered to check the code.”

City Council approved the surveillance ban ordinance in June 2013. The petition would have mandated a public vote.

The cameras are part of a larger upgrade to safety and security measures at the school district, and seen as a tool to improve safety surrounding school buses. The district declined to say whether Iowa City’s new law was discussed before approving the cameras, which were approved as part of the latest contract with Durham School Services, which provides busing.

Iowa City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes disagrees that the cameras are in violation. She said the surveillance law bans traffic cameras only for “qualified traffic violations.” Stop-arm violations are not included, she said.

“I don’t think it is a traffic control signal as defined in our ordinance,” Dilkes said.

The law states that the city shall not use “any automatic traffic surveillance system or device, automatic license plate recognition system or device, or domestic drone system or device for the enforcement of a qualified traffic law violation, unless a peace officer or parking enforcement attendant is present at the scene, witnesses the event, and personally issues the ticket to the alleged violator at the time and location of the violation.”

The qualifying violations, as written in law, include compliance with traffic control and railroad cross signals, speed limit violations and parking violations.

The ban was written to prevent police from issuing traffic tickets that rely on cameras to identify the perpetrator or their vehicle in place of an officer.

Dilkes also said there’s a few other factors in her interpretation.

The history of the ordinance, which formed in opposition to red light cameras, should be taken into consideration. Other types of surveillance cameras are still allowed, such as in the public library, school property, and the downtown business district, she said. Dilkes also said it’s debatable whether it’s under the city’s purview since the cameras belong to the school district.

Critics say such systems are designed to create revenue not make people safer.

James Walker, chief executive and board president of the National Motorists Association Foundation, said these cameras goes against the intent of Iowa City’s law.

“The intent of stop arm cameras is precisely the same as for speed and red light cameras — to automate traffic offense citations using machines instead of officers to “see” the offenses and issue the citations,” Walker said in an email.

The cameras in question, which are being installed on each bus beginning last school year with completion this fall, are intended to help police in issuing tickets by identifying motorists blowing past extended school bus stop-arms. Passing a school bus illegally cause six to eight deaths a year nationally, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

About 20 districts in Iowa have stop-arm cameras.

School bus stop-arms and the buses’ flashing lights function in a similar way as stationary traffic controls.

Approaching a bus from the rear, if the amber or red lights are on, motorists cannot pass a school bus. The vehicle must stop at least 15 feet from the bus when the stop-arm is extended, and not pass until the stop-arm is retracted. From the opposite direction, if the amber lights are on motorists must slow to 20 miles per hour and be prepared to stop when the stop-arm is activated.

Violations are considered a simple misdemeanor and come with hefty penalties, including the loss of license for 30 days and a minimum $250 fine.

Traditionally, police issue stop-arm citations based on information from a report produced from the observation of a school bus driver.

Iowa City Schools Chief Operating Officer David Dude said he has given permission to Durham to release footage from the cameras to police if requested.

The camera system runs on a loop, with the oldest material getting overwritten as the drive fills, Dude said. Dude said factors such as resolution, frame rates and length of routes can all factor into how long footage is stored. He said as part of the upgrade, buses are also equipped with automated video uploading system.

The stop-arm cameras cost the district about $36,700 over three years.

Caroline Dieterle of Iowa City, who was also part of the Stop Big Brother group, said she believe the cameras violate Iowa City’s law, but the bigger point is that the cameras are not the right solution to the problem.

“To me it is inconsequential whether it violates the law or not,” Dieterle said. “I think it does, but that is not the point. Too many people like myself didn’t have a problem with the cameras until we had a public discussion and realized it was not a good idea.”

Dieterle and Gurtovoy said that aside surveillance concerns, school bus cameras are not the best way to improve safety.

Gurtovoy said the focus should be on informing the public of school bus traffic rules; update the design of the flashing stop sign system, which he said is inadequate to provide advanced warning for motorists, in favor of emergency flashing lights similar to an emergency vehicle; installing crossing arms that block traffic; and installing speed radar systems that sounds a siren or alarm when a car is not going to stop.

“The stop-arm cameras do not prevent accidents from happening, they simply take a picture of the car’s license plate after the alleged violation has occurred,” Gurtovoy said.

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