Local Government

No additional patrols planned for dangerous S-curve

Tickets issued there by Cedar Rapids police only tiny fraction of speed camera citations

Cars merge with northbound traffic on Interstate 380 through Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Narrow shoulders and numerous, close-together exits create issues for police to safely enforce traffic laws. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Cars merge with northbound traffic on Interstate 380 through Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Narrow shoulders and numerous, close-together exits create issues for police to safely enforce traffic laws. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Law enforcement officials say they aren’t stepping up patrols to offset the loss of automated speed camera enforcement on Interstate 380, which will mean sparse traffic enforcement on one of the busiest, trickiest stretches of highway in Iowa, according to interviews and data.

Cedar Rapids police bear the brunt of the fallout from a judge’s ruling backing the Iowa Department of Transportation order to move or turn off prolific traffic cameras around I-380’s S-curve. The Cedar Rapids department is the lead agency for I-380 enforcement in the city limits, but it writes a scant fraction of speeding citations in that area compared with those from the cameras.

Early anecdotal reports to Cedar Rapids police have drivers speeding up after the April 25 ruling affirming Iowa DOT’s authority over municipalities to regulate the cameras on primary highways and interstates. But the reports already have subsided and there haven’t been a rash of crashes, said Sgt. Mike Wallerstedt, the traffic bureau chief.

Max Freund / The Gazette

Sidebar: Read about how many people are paying their fixed camera tickets here.


“We are in a holding pattern,” he said. “We haven’t seen an increase in crashes. Until we see that, I don’t think we are going to take drastic measures in doing any kind of enforcement.”

Additional traffic control support on the road that sees upward of 70,000 vehicles per day also isn’t forthcoming from the Iowa State Patrol or the Iowa DOT, which ordered 10 of 34 cameras around the state turned off, saying they didn’t improve safety.

“It’s really between the city police and Iowa State Patrol, and the DOT is really not involved in that,” said Steve Gent, Iowa DOT director of traffic and safety.


Cedar Rapids, Muscatine and Des Moines have appealed the judge’s ruling. Cedar Rapids filed a motion to keep the cameras working during the appeal, but a judge has not made a decision. The city also uses traffic cameras at three intersection not on the interstate, and the westbound speed control of the camera at First Avenue E and 10th Street NE was also ordered off.

The cameras have done a lion’s share of traffic enforcement in recent years on I-380, which has freed police to refocus resources, such as on community policing in neighborhoods.

Data provided by the city shows police wrote just 195 citations for various violations within the S-curve and 625 on all of I-380 within the city limits from May 1, 2016 to April 30, 2017. By comparison, the four camera locations on I-380 issued 143,848 citations in 2016, according to the most recent city data.

That’s one-tenth of 1 percent of the tickets written by city police.

Officers face a grim outlook for patrolling the S-curve, which consists of an elevated bridge winding over and through downtown Cedar Rapids. It’s dangerous and few spots exist to observe traffic, much less make a safe stop, Wallerstedt said.

Three geographic patrol areas include segments of I-380, but no policy exists for how much, if at all, officers patrol the interstate, he said.

The Gazette accompanied Wallerstedt on a ride-along last week on the S-curve where two sets of cameras have been operating in each the northbound and southbound lanes — two near J Avenue NE, one near Diagonal Drive SW and one near First Avenue W — since 2010.

Guard rails, cable medians, merging traffic from on- and off-ramps, narrow shoulders, crests and curves, and the bridge together create a challenging stretch to enforce, Wallerstedt said.

Max Freund / The Gazette

“It prohibits us from doing a lot of the enforcement we like to do,” he said. “We won’t stop cars on bridges, the crest of a hill or a curve.”


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The presence of police, especially during heavy traffic, can trigger reactionary crashes from motorists who often brake upon seeing a cruiser or get distracted, he said. The dangers of patrol have been a key argument for fighting to keep the speed cameras.

“I would much rather go into a situation that perhaps is unpleasant — and for police, that could be anything — rather than sit up here on the interstate and do traffic control,” said Wallerstedt, a 30 year veteran. “If someone is going to not pay attention and lose control, it’s going to be one of those squad cars who are going to get hit. We do it because we have to do it — if there’s a crash that comes up here and we deal with it — but nobody wants to do it.”

Help from state patrol is an option, but at this point is not planned.

“I don’t foresee us making any changes unless Cedar Rapids asks for help or if we see a lot of crashes in that area,” said Robert Conrad, a public resource officer for the Iowa State Patrol in Cedar Rapids. “A lot of law enforcement is reactive. You see a problem and target the issue. We want to keep speed down and Cedar Rapids wants to see speed down, but resources are limited.”

Conrad confirmed numbers reported by the Des Moines Register in December that the number of sworn state troopers had declined from 450 in 2000 to 358 last year, and on a typical overnight only five to seven troopers are on duty statewide.

The question will be what is the effect on I-380 traffic without the cameras, particularly as vehicle fatalities in Iowa rise, topping 400 in 2016.

“It’s one of the most dangerous stretches in all of the state of Iowa,” said Ann Poe, a member of the Cedar Rapids City Council who supports the cameras. “It gets very slippery as you go around the S-curve. The first time someone dies on the interstate because of the judge’s ruling, it’s going to be very upsetting.”

Cedar Rapids officials point to crash data as proof of the cameras’ success, but other data exists that raises doubt.

From January 2007 until the cameras were turned on in 2010 — or 41.5 months — Cedar Rapids recorded 213 crashes in the S-curve area. Of those, 92 involved at least one injury and three were fatal crashes leading to four deaths. That stretch later to be monitored by cameras averaged a death a year dating to 2003, according to last week’s report to the Iowa DOT.


In contrast, from the time the cameras were turned on through 2016 — or 78.5 months — 260 crashes were recorded, including 67 involving injury and one fatal crash in which two people died.

Critics of the cameras note that speeding on I-380 nonetheless continues to increase and others say the installation of a higher friction pavement has been an equal or greater factor in reducing serious crashes.

Proponents of the cameras promised an effective system would see a reduction in tickets over time as behavior changed. But fueled by an uptick in traffic and a high number of pass-through motorists, the numbers have climbed dramatically — to 143,848 citations in 2016, which is up 10 percent from 2015 and up 56 percent from the first full year of camera operation in 2011.

The traffic cameras in Cedar Rapids are continuing to record data — but not issuing tickets for now. Local authorities plan to analyze the data to see if speed increases, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said.

“If speeds don’t go up, that’ll be good news,” Corbett said. “If speeds start to creep up that will be evidence cameras were effective.”

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

Sidebar: Read about how many people are paying their fixed camera tickets here.




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