Cedar Rapids red-light camera sites chosen by crash numbers, not citations

Police and traffic engineers considered an array of data to determine where to put red-light cameras, but actual red-light violations weren’t a factor.

Instead, the team focused on right-angle crashes, which are often caused by drivers who run red lights. Construction plans, pedestrian traffic and the ability to enforce the intersections normally also were included in the review, police said.

Police Capt. Steve O’Konek said red-light citations were not considered, because they are not tracked by location. Even if they were, he said, basing camera locations on those citations would lead the public to believe the goal is revenue generation, something Cedar Rapids police have consistently denied.

“Our goal has always been to reduce crashes and injuries at these intersections,” O’Konek said. “If we do have other intersections where people are running the red lights, the data doesn’t show that they’re hitting anything. It may be a problem there, but they’re not crashing into anybody.”

The controversial cameras are

already running at First Avenue East and 10th Street and along

Second Avenue at Sixth Street SW and 10th Street SE. (See map.) Cameras will go up at more intersections this summer, police said. They are projected to generate $750,000 in tickets annually.

To figure out where the cameras should go, police and traffic engineers analyzed six years of crash data at 30 intersections. They counted the number of right-angle crashes and the number of injuries caused by them, O’Konek said. The camera vendor, Gatso USA, independently analyzed the finalists.

City Council members approved installation of the cameras without reviewing the data themselves, O’Konek said.

Of the 30 studied intersections, eight are approved for cameras. The eight include the top three intersections with the most right-angle crashes during the time span, but only five of the top 15, an analysis by The Gazette found. (See crash chart, XA.)

There are no plans to install cameras at the other accident-prone intersections. The reasons range far and wide, O’Konek said.

Construction is planned at two of them: Williams Boulevard and Wiley Boulevard SW, and the intersection of eastbound Collins Road NE and the Interstate 380 northbound off-ramp. Left-turn lanes will be redesigned on Williams this year. At the other corner, a system will be installed to detect oncoming traffic and adjust the signals accordingly, so last-second signal changes are reduced.

The two intersections combined for 48 right-angle crashes, 12 with injuries, during the six-year span.

“We’ll look at those after they do the construction work,” O’Konek said. “If we still have a problem, they may be suitable candidates (for cameras), but it didn’t make sense for us to put a system in place to change driver behavior and reduce crashes if the engineering would do it.”

Another accident-prone intersection is Second Avenue and L Street SW, No. 5 on the list, according to the analysis. The intersection logged 22 right-angle crashes, eight with injuries, from 2003 through 2008. A camera will be installed a block away, however, at First Avenue West and L Street SW, No. 9 on the list.

O’Konek said studies have shown that the cameras reduce accidents at nearby intersections, too.

“We think we’re going to see some residual effect at Second Avenue and L Street,” O’Konek said. “Certainly, it’s still on our list, and if we continue to see the right-angle crashes, we have no aversion to putting a camera at that location, as well.”

The three intersections where cameras are already live rank first, 20th and 21st for number of right-angle crashes during the six-year span. O’Konek said weather delays and the ease of engineering have dictated where cameras have gone first.

Tom Welch, state safety engineer for the Iowa Department of Transportation, said red-light cameras should be the last resort to improve safety. Design of the intersection and signal visibility and timing should all be considered first.

O’Konek said those things were evaluated, along with speed limits.

Welch said measuring safety is a difficult task.

“It’s like trying to measure how wet water is,” Welch said, “but that’s what we try to do. It’s about trying to save trips to trauma centers and funeral homes.”

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