On Cedar Rapids' S-curve, speed is up but crashes aren't

Now six months without speed camera tickets, data diverges on safety

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Khayree Duckett has been driving 5 mph or so faster through downtown on Interstate 380 during his trips from home in Burlington to visit family in Maynard since speed cameras stopped issuing tickets six months ago.

He drives faster, but cars still whiz past. On the straightaways, higher speeds aren’t such a problem. But on the S-curve it “definitely feels a little riskier,” he said.

“I think the entire flow, the pace has increased since the cameras went down,” said Duckett, 23. “ ... There’s speed limits for a reason developed by people a lot smarter than me, so I’d say it’s probably not for the best.”

While it’s clear drivers are going faster along the stretch that includes the narrow and sharp interstate curve across the Cedar River, it’s less clear what that means for safety. State and city data on car crashes conflict, worsened by the fact that the period to compare with past years is so short — six months.

Still, some drivers say it just feels safer despite the higher speeds. Motorists are no longer slamming on the brakes to avoid a camera ticket, then stomping on the gas to resume speeding when out of range, they say.

“The flow is a lot smoother and less congested,” said Cody Mason, 40, who drives I-380 for his pest control business, Alias The Bugman.

Overall, speeding on I-380 through downtown is up 15 percent compared with this same time last year. Or put another way, six of 10 motorists now exceed the limit of 55 mph, according to a Gazette analysis of Cedar Rapids police data collected from May 2, 2016, to Oct. 2, 2016, and from the same period in 2017 at the four traffic camera locations.

Max Freund / The Gazette

Most troubling, officials say, is that more motorists are going far above the speed limit since a judge ordered Cedar Rapids to stop issuing tickets from automated cameras April 25.

Motorists driving 67 mph or greater, or 12 mph above the limit, has more than tripled from 129,479 in the 2016 period to 618,428 in the same 2017 period, according to Cedar Rapids police data. Twelve mph and above used to trigger a speed camera ticket.

Max Freund / The Gazette

Increasing the risk, traffic counts were up 7 percent in 2017, a police official said.

“The data shows just how large the speeding problem is,” Sgt. Mike Wallerstedt, head of the traffic division, said in an email. “While we can’t condone any speeding, we are particularly concerned with motorists going 67 mph or faster. The automated traffic enforcement program was designed to hold drivers accountable who were traveling at least 12 mph or over the speed limit.”

Such high speeds increase the risk of serious injury or death when a crash occurs, Wallerstedt said.

Cedar Rapids has cameras on I-380 at J Avenue NE in the north and southbound lanes on the north end of the S curve, and at Diagonal Drive SW in the northbound lane and at First Avenue W in the southbound lane on the south end of the S curve.

The cameras aren’t issuing tickets, but the judge allowed them to remain on to collect data during an appeal from the city to the Iowa Supreme Court. A court date has not been set.

Speeds at each location are up on several fronts: moderate speeding of 56-66 mph, higher end speeding of 67-plus, and top speed, according to Cedar Rapids police data.

Max Freund / The Gazette

The sharpest trends include:

At J Avenue southbound, just 12.6 percent of motorists now obey the speed limit, down from 27 percent in 2016. High end speeding of at least 67 mph has more than tripled. The top recorded speed was also found here: 114 mph.

At J Avenue northbound, those who obey the speed limit is down to 18 percent, from 21.5 percent in 2016.

At Diagonal Drive, those who obey the limit is down to 34 percent, from 47 percent in 2016.

Cameras at First Avenue detected the smallest increases in speeding, although it was up in every category except for top speed.

IOWA DOT DATA DIFFERS

The Iowa Department of Transportation has been examining speed data collected by the Iowa State University Institute for Transportation, which uses sensors placed at eight locations between just north of Diagonal Drive SW and south of J Avenue NE near Coe College. The sensors collect data in 20-second bursts.

The ISU data shows average speeds have increased only marginally from 57.7 to 58.5 mph between 2016 and 2017.

Steve Gent, director of traffic and safety at the Iowa DOT, agreed motorists are going faster, but questioned whether the Cedar Rapids data paints an accurate picture.

City data comes from four fixed points, so didn’t capture how fast vehicles were traveling when out of view of the cameras, he said.

“What you are seeing is a natural human reaction to less enforcement out there,” Gent said. “It is natural people speed up a little bit, but the reality is people don’t change their behavior that much.”

Gent also questioned why 10 percent of Cedar Rapids’ data didn’t record speed and therefore was excluded from the results. Wallerstedt said this is part of the camera’s “built-in technology to ensure accuracy.”

‘A LOT SMOOTHER’

Despite the increase in speeding, some say the road feels safer, and Iowa DOT crash data supports that perception.

Crashes are down 50 percent — from 27 to 14 — between May 2 to Oct. 2 of the two years in the mainline of I-380 between milemarkers 22 and 18, which extends beyond the camera zone. The mainline stretch excludes on- and offramps. Crash-related injuries dropped from 10 to one.

Max Freund / The Gazette

Jeremy Hora, 40, who commutes between home in the north part of Cedar Rapids and work in Coralville, said he was driving in the left lane at 65 or 70 mph on Wednesday and moved over to let another vehicle pass.

“The guy flew buy me like I was standing still,” he said.

But Hora agreed with Mason, the pest control company driver.

“I think it is actually safer,” Hora said. “You hate to say that, but when you have traffic cameras, when you have people slowing down and speeding up, that caused a lot of congestion, whereas now people just keep on whatever pace they are going. You can definitely tell it’s a lot smoother.”

CRASH DATA CONFLICTS

The Iowa DOT provided crash data generated from a statewide crash reporting tool called TraCS and reviewed by Iowa’s Safety Analysis, Visualization and Exploration Resource.

Gent said he was surprised to see fewer crashes, especially since I-380 near downtown had a work zone for much of 2017. Work zones typically have higher crash rates, he said.

While he considered the crash data a “random sample” rather than proof that I-380 is actually safer without cameras, he said benefits exist to vehicles traveling at a more consistent speed.

“Speed by itself is not what causes crashes or makes a roadway dangerous,” he said. “The safest speed is to get everyone to drive the exact same speed.”

Cedar Rapids police, though, reported different crash data that shows less of a drop. The data shows 18 crashes in 2016 and 17 in 2017.

The data also came from TraCS, Wallerstedt said. Only crashes that occur between the camera locations, and only those investigated by a Cedar Rapids police officer who completes a crash report, were included, he said.

Seven of the crashes in 2016, he noted, occurred during the September flood when traffic was diverted from surface streets to the interstate.

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

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