University Heights cites speeders at higher rate than neighboring towns
'If people just drove the speed limit ... they wouldn't have anything to worry about'
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University Heights, considered a speed trap by many people driving to Hawkeye football games or the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, issued speeding tickets at a rate nearly 100 times higher than Iowa City in the year that ended July 31.
An 1,120-person enclave surrounded by Iowa City, University Heights wrote 907 speeding tickets between Aug. 1, 2015, and July 31, 2016 — which would translate into a rate of 8,098 per 10,000 residents.
l Iowa City, which has 71,500 residents, wrote 617 speeding tickets during that year, a rate of 86 tickets per 10,000.
l Coralville, with 20,000 people, had 802 speeding tickets, which was a rate of 399 per 10,000.
l North Liberty, with just under 15,000 people, had 366 citations for speeding, a rate of 244 per 10,000.
The University Heights police chief and mayor say comparing tickets by population isn’t fair because the city isn’t your typical stand-alone hamlet — it’s a busy thoroughfare for weekday commuters and balloons in size on football game days with thousands of tailgaters.
“We are surrounded by a very large metropolitan area,” Mayor Wally Heitman said. “We’re an anomaly.”
University Heights residents — all 38 at the time — voted in 1935 to incorporate as a city within a city.
“The residents sent their children to the University elementary school, for which they paid tuition, and they did not want to be assessed city school taxes in addition,” according to research by the Johnson County Historical Society.
Today, police protection is important to this community where the median annual income is $52,500, about $10,000 more than in Iowa City. The University Heights City Council will soon open a new police station and is considering adding to its five-person force, Heitman said.
University Heights has more than twice as many officers per 1,000 residents as the average of other comparably-sized communities, according data listed in a 2015 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The city hired Police Chief Ken Stanley in 2014 after Stanley had served 32 years with the California Highway Patrol.
“I’m a big proponent of traffic enforcement,” Stanley said. “There’s quite a bit of pedestrian and bicycle traffic through University Heights and then there’s game day. Because of that, we do aggressively enforce the speed limit on Melrose and other streets.”
The speed limit on Melrose Avenue, an east-west road that sees heavy traffic, drops from 35 to 25 mph as it narrows to two lanes coming into University Heights from the west.
University Heights officers do more than write tickets, but the city doesn’t have the variety or severity of crime usually seen in neighboring towns, Stanley said. He scoffed at the speed trap reputation.
“If people just drove the speed limit for the mile they drove through town, they wouldn’t have anything to worry about,” he said.
Traffic fines brought in $73,675 in fiscal 2016, which was 6 percent of the city’s overall budget of just under $1.2 million, City Treasurer Lori Kimura said.
University Heights officers often cite motorists for driving 1 to 4 miles over the speed limit when the actual speed was much higher, Stanley said. The goal is to give drivers a break.
“If this was a moneymaking opportunity, we would nail people for exactly what they are doing,” he said.
He would not say how much leeway officers give before writing tickets, but “if anyone were to come to you saying they were doing 1 to 5 miles over the limit, that is not true.”
University Heights has issued 36 drunken-driving citations since Jan. 1, with many of those on game days, Stanley said.
The agency got into a high-speed chase Aug. 27 when a Wisconsin man wouldn’t pull over for speeding on Melrose. Dylan Sockness, 20, reached speeds of 100 mph in the 25-mph zone, crashing through a road-closed sign, running a red light and nearly hitting pedestrians leaving a concert at Kinnick Stadium, police reported.
Sockness and his 16-year-old passenger were arrested after crashing into a house.
One witness questioned whether police should have chased Sockness through the crowded streets, but Stanley said he considered Sockness a bigger risk if not stopped.
In some ways, University Heights faces the same criticisms as Cedar Rapids, whose Interstate 380 traffic cameras generate money for city coffers, but also have reduced crashes.
“It’s a safety issue,” said Heitman, of University Heights. “If that (ticketing speeders) defrays some of the cost of our police officers, then it’s worth it.”