Criticism remains as Cedar Rapids traffic cameras turn 2 years old

Data shows some safety improvements

A traffic camera at First Avenue and 10th Street NE is among seven installed at Cedar Rapids intersections since 2010. (
A traffic camera at First Avenue and 10th Street NE is among seven installed at Cedar Rapids intersections since 2010. (Matt Nelson/The Gazette)

As the city of Cedar Rapids traffic camera program turns 2 years old, the debate continues whether they are an effective safety tool or just another way for cities to raise money.

A Gazette and KCRG-TV9 review of data shows it is a little of both:

  • Crashes along the “S curve” along Interstate 380 — between H Ave NE and Diagonal Drive SE, where cameras monitoring drivers’ speed were installed in 2010 — fell from 28 in 2009 to seven in 2011.
  •  Crashes at the seven intersections where cameras monitor red-light violations were also installed in 2010 dropped only 12 from 2009 to 2007, from 104 to 92.
  •  Citywide, crashes dropped from 4,954 in 2009 to 4,619 in 2011 after an increase to 5,226 in 2010. The 2011 figure represents an 11 percent drop from 2010 and 7 percent decrease from 2009.
  •  Wrecks on I-380 fell from 71 in 2009 to 34 last year.
  •  Traffic fatalities citywide fell from seven in 2009 to one in 2011.

Police say those numbers show the cameras are changing drivers’ behavior.

“People are talking about it, and people are slowing down,” said Cedar Rapids police Capt. Steve O’Konek. “We’re really leveraging a technology that helps us be as accurate to enforce the laws in a new way.”

He said the little change in crashes at intersections where red-light violations are monitored can be attributed to the fact they are all high-risk intersections and the data supports keeping them there.

“We have no plans to move the cameras based on our data,” O’Konek said. “We’re encouraged by the results, but we continue to look to see if there are ways to better protect the public and better reduce these crashes.”

University of Iowa professor of civil and environmental engineering Wilfrid Nixon argues a reduced crash rate “does not tell us that red-light cameras are the way to go.”

“Safety is great, but the red-light cameras are not the only way to achieve the safety benefits,” said Nixon. “Let’s try the other ways first.”

Arguing the simplest answer is usually the best, Nixon said the city should look at extending the yellow period on traffic lights, citing studies showing that has also reduced crash rates.

Cedar Rapids officials also argue reduced crash rates aren’t the only safety benefits of the cameras, saying the department saved 542 hours of manpower last year as a result of the cameras.

“It’s definitely decreased the amount of time we have to spend working accidents up on the interstate,” said Officer Graham Campshure.

Officers report spending more time answering other criminal complaints, following up on investigations and patrolling neighborhoods, but d. However, there is no data to support this claim.

Camera revenues

On the revenue side, the cameras have generated more than $9 millions since their installation in 2010, which critics argue is the major motivation behind installing the camers.

“I think the money is a major concern,” said Nixon. “If it were not a driving force, and if safety were the only concern, then they would have tried lengthening the yellow phase.”

Sgt. Cristy Hamblin said the department’s $29 million budget for 2011 anticipated $3 million in revenue from the cameras.

She said the $3 million was earmarked for improvements to the First Avenue and Collins Road intersection, placing “photo enforced” signs at intersections citywide and buying new signs for school zone speed limits.

Hamblin said the cameras actually generated more than $3 million, and the extra money was used to purchase new rifles and to help offset rising pension costs for police and firefighters.

“If you think we’re spending inappropriately, go to the city council or come to our citizen academy. I don’t mind criticism, but it has to be constructive,” Hamblin said.

Other arguments

Critics also argue the cameras in Cedar Rapids and other Iowa cities that have them infrnge on due process rights since citations go to the car’s owner, not necessarily the person driving when a violation happens.

“That seems wrong to me” Nixon said. “Getting a ticket when someone else broke the law just seems wrong to me.”

Rep. Walt Rogers R-Cedar Falls, floor manager of a bill making its way through the Iowa Legislature that would ban camers, agrees.

“I think this process of needing surveillance and issuing tickets without an officer there digs into civil liberties,” Rogers said.

At the same time, Rogers said he applauds positive numbers from the crash data supporting the cameras, especially on I-380.

“I’ve driven through the S-curve and speed has definitely gone down that’s a good thing,” Rogers said,, “My whole point is can we get to that safety data without using a controversial method.”

The Iowa Supreme Court in 2008 rejected the argument the cameras are uncostutional, ruling that since the citation is a civil fine and not a criminal one there is no constitutional problem.


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