Traffic camera fans, foes remain, a year after installation

A view of 380 from the 7th street bridge photographed, Sunday  March 6, 2011, in Cedar Rapids.  (Becky Malewitz/The Gaze
A view of 380 from the 7th street bridge photographed, Sunday March 6, 2011, in Cedar Rapids. (Becky Malewitz/The Gazette)

Ada Camp hears quite a bit when she cleans at the Interstate 380 rest stop south of Cedar Rapids, and one topic comes up regularly: Traffic cameras.

Camp, 69, said most people she has talked to, including truck drivers and out-of-towners, don’t mind them. And, like most, she has her own opinion.

“I don’t know why people are complaining, truthfully,” said Camp, of Cedar Rapids. “If you drive decent, you don’t have to worry about it. If you’re not going to be driving decent, get off the road.”

On March 14, it will have been one year since camera-generated citations started going out from the monitored intersections. Eight intersections in Cedar Rapids are watched automatically now, as is I-380 at four points where the freeway twists through downtown. The city also has a mobile unit that monitors speeding.

It’s added up to big money and significantly fewer crashes, according to police statistics. Through February, the city has made $2.3 million from the camera system, according to data from camera vendor Gatso USA, which exceeded by threefold the $750,000 projected first-year revenue.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Greg Graham said crashes citywide dropped by 8 percent from 2009 to 2010, and injury crashes fell 16 percent. Instead of working crashes, officers went to neighborhoods.

Graham said the extra officers in neighborhoods helped reduce violent crime by 2 percent and property crime by 12 percent last year.

“Being able to redeploy those resources to actually combat crime, rather than working crashes, has helped reduce crime, along with all the other programs we do in the neighborhoods,” Graham said.

Camera critic Ron Richardson, 55, a truck driver from Burlington, said he doesn’t believe the only motive for the cameras is public safety. If it was, he said, the drivers who are breaking the law repeatedly would be stripped of their driving privileges.

“These people aren’t being penalized, as long as they’ve got plenty of money to pay the fines,” Richardson said. “He’s not going to be off the roads. He’s still going to be driving crazy, until he’s broke.”

Graham admits that the civil penalty system is not ideal, but said it’s the only real option, because the tickets are sent to the registered owner, not necessarily the driver. It’s not realistic to implement an administrative process to determine who was actually driving, or to reconfigure the cameras so they photograph the driver, he said.

“Can you imagine the outcry if we started taking pictures of people inside cars?” Graham said.

According to statistics reviewed by The Gazette, 68 percent of the mailed camera-generated citations have been paid, and less than 1 percent have been overturned. Most of the rest that are past due were forwarded to a collections agency hired by the city.

The cameras are nothing if not consistent, and they certainly don’t take holidays off. On Christmas Day last year, 260 citations were issued.

Ninety-five percent of the citations are from speeders on I-380. In six months, violations in the northbound lanes at Diagonal Drive have dropped 79 percent.

Travis Bushaw, 26, of Oelwein, said the cameras have evened the pace of traffic on I-380, and now most people are within five miles per hour of the speed limit. He commuted between North Liberty and Cedar Rapids for two years until a recent move.

“I have to admit, I’m a big fan of them,” said Bushaw, during a pit stop at an I-380 rest stop last week. “It’s really slowed down traffic through there. Some days, it was pretty scary making that commute.”

But it’s the money draws the attention of most people, Graham said. He said he hopes to spend about $250,000 of the additional money on new flashing signs for school zones, and another $80,000 to upgrade the video camera systems in the patrol cars. The current dashcam vendor went bankrupt, he said.

The City Council will make the final call. Graham said the extra money is essentially property tax relief, because his $30 million police budget is reduced by the amount the city projects to make from the traffic cameras. He said it adds up to less money pulled from the city’s general fund, which is funded by property taxes.

There are no plans to add additional cameras in Cedar Rapids, although the camera at Second Avenue and 10th Street SE will eventually be moved when part of Second Avenue is closed for a new medical mall, Graham said. An analysis is under way to determine which new intersection will be monitored.

Graham said a study will be done this summer to determine if a speed zone should be established for the “S-curve” on I-380. He’s heard reports that drivers slow down for the cameras, but then speed up again, as soon they’re past them.

If a speed zone is established, a driver would get one ticket if they make it from the first set of the cameras to the second set of cameras too quickly.“If it shows that people are driving the right speed through there, we won’t do anything, and we’ll keep monitoring it,” Graham said. “If we need to change it, we’ll change it.”

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