Chief: 'Alarming' spike in speeding on I-380 without camera tickets

Data shows 79 percent increase in vehicles traveling at 67 mph or higher

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Speeding on the windy “S-curve” of Interstate 380 through downtown Cedar Rapids has spiked since speed cameras stopped issuing tickets last month, according to data released Wednesday.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman, a strong proponent of the cameras as a safety tool, called the sharp increase in such a short period “alarming” but not surprising.

“It is very, very alarming,” Jerman said. “It’s just increasing the hazards of that stretch. ... Does anyone recognize or realize the risk they are placing on other drivers?”

The number of vehicles traveling at 67 mph or higher increased by 79 percent — 11,250 vehicles to 20,133 — at the four I-380 camera locations when comparing the week of April 23-29 to the week of May 7-13, according to data released by Cedar Rapids police.

That is the last full week before city officials announced the camera ticketing program had been suspended, on May 2, to the first full week after.

The cameras stopped issuing tickets but continued to collect data in response to a judge’s April 25 ruling backing the Iowa Department of Transportation’s order to turn off two of the I-380 cameras and move the other two. The speed limit in this area, roughly from mile markers 19 to 22, is 55 mph.

Some motorists were unabashed about increasing speeds.

“When they stopped issuing tickets, I made sure to bump my speed up and flip the cameras off,” said Brent Busch, 45, of Cedar Rapids. “It was my way of a simple protest.”

Busch, who said he’s been against the cameras since installation in 2010, believes the speed limit is artificially low for an interstate, and other factors have made I-380 safer in recent years, not the cameras. High friction surface and more signs have been added to the S-curve.

“What I’ve noticed is people don’t jam on the breaks when they go under the cameras any more,” Busch said. “People are going a little faster, but I think it seems a little safer.”

The average speed of motorists traveling between 56 and 66 mph increased by 1 mph at three of the camera locations — J Avenue northbound and southbound and Diagonal Drive northbound — and remained the same at the southbound camera location at First Avenue W, according to the data.

Average speed of those traveling at 67 mph or greater increased by 1 or 2 mph at three locations, and dropped by 1 mph at the southbound location at First Avenue West.

Despite the minimal change to average speeds at First Avenue, the number of those violating the speed limit between 56 and 66 mph increased by more than 37 percent and the number of motorists exceeding 67 mph more than doubled in the periods of comparison, according to Cedar Rapids police.

Top speeds recorded at each camera location increased from a range of 81 to 96 mph to 92 to 102 mph, according to police.

While only one crash has occurred since the cameras stopped issuing tickets, it’s only a matter of time before the increased speeds lead to more crashes, Jerman said.

“When we are talking about a hazardous stretch of roadway, vehicles exceeding the speed limit by the amount they are, accidents and collisions are going to occur, and the thing is, they are preventable,” Jerman said.

“We are not playing games,” the chief added. “This is not about winning and losing. This is about preventing the loss of life and saving lives.”

Chuck Farmer, vice president of research at the Arlington, Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, agrees with Jerman’s assessment.

“Anytime you see increased speeds you are bound to see an increase in crashes,” he said. “And the faster speeds cut down reaction time in an emergency, decreases stopping time if you are trying to avoid something and the crash is more severe.”

Farmer said the 79 percent increase in speeding is not surprising. While his organization hasn’t studied what happens after cameras are removed, their research shows when cameras are installed speeding decreases by roughly the same amount — 80 percent.

Steve Gent, director of traffic and safety for the Iowa DOT, questions the significance of the new data on speeding.

“It is well known that many of the drivers who are aware of the camera locations, slow for the cameras and then speed up once they are past the cameras,” he said in an email. “The speed data shared by the city was collected at these camera locations, which may not be representative of overall speeds along the I-380 corridor through Cedar Rapids.”

Cedar Rapids police still are reviewing their options to address the increase in speeding, but patrolling I-380 remains risky.

“Traditional traffic enforcement — stopping vehicles on the roadway — with the width of the shoulders places the officers at extreme risk to make traffic stops,” Jerman said.

Also of concern is spurring “panic” among other drivers by the presence of police on the high traffic volume road, he said.

Cedar Rapids police and Iowa State Patrol officials told The Gazette last week they did not intend to increase patrols in absence of the cameras issuing tickets. An official with the Iowa DOT said that agency also had no plans to get involved.

Cedar Rapids police have justified the use of the cameras by pointing to their effectiveness in not only calming speeding but also assisting police with enforcing this portion of I-380. Critics counter the argument pointing out the number of speeders has risen substantially since the camera program began in 2010. They contend the cameras are a tool for making money.

From January 2007 until the cameras were turned on in 2010 — or 41.5 months — there were 5.13 crashes and 2.2 personal injury crashes per month in that stretch of I-380, compared to 3.29 crashes per month and .81 personal injury crashes after the cameras were installed through the end of 2016 — or 78.5 months — according to a report submitted from Cedar Rapids to the Iowa DOT this month.

The stretch monitored by the cameras averaged a death a year from 2003 until the cameras were installed, according to the report. Not a single fatality occurred in that stretch from 2010 until a fatal crash in November 2016 that claimed the lives of two people.

In that fatal crash a speeding vehicle collided with a Cedar Rapids police cruiser stopped on I-380 to investigate another car crash. Two police officers were injured but survived.

The Cedar Rapids traffic cameras on I-380 issued 143,800 tickets in 2016, the last full year reported.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

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