Semis, others with no rear plates can avoid Iowa traffic camera tickets

Some upset with systems lack of fairness; officials say cameras prevent collisions

Semis travel north on Interstate 380 through Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. Because semis carry rear loads, their license plates are on the front of the vehicle, so many semis cannot be ticketed by speed cameras. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Semis travel north on Interstate 380 through Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. Because semis carry rear loads, their license plates are on the front of the vehicle, so many semis cannot be ticketed by speed cameras. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

More than 50,000 Iowa-based vehicles – mostly semis, trucks and buses – that conduct business across state lines don’t have rear license plates, which means they can’t be ticketed by traffic cameras.

The discovery adds fuel to the fire for people who say traffic cameras in a dozen Iowa cities, including Cedar Rapids, don’t enforce the law fairly.

“These vehicles basically get a license to speed,” said Gary Hughes of Marion. “The inequity in the system should be corrected or the traffic cameras eliminated.”

Fixed and mobile traffic cameras used in Iowa since the mid-2000s have reduced collisions, police say, and added millions of dollars a year to city budgets. But the devices are under fire by the Iowa Department of Transportation, which wants cities to justify their use.

Some semis, buses without rear plate

The International Registration Plan (IRP) is a reciprocity agreement between the 48 contiguous states and Canada that allows commercial motor carriers to register in one jurisdiction, which apportions fees to other areas depending how many miles the driver logs there.

The plan requires drivers to place their single license plates on the front of their vehicles because many carry rear loads.

“On a semi, the plate is supposed to be on the front,” said Karen Smith, of the DOT’s Office of Vehicle and Motor Carrier Services.

Most traffic cameras take photographs of the rear license plates of vehicles caught speeding or running red lights. Gatso USA, the camera vendor used in Cedar Rapids, sends vehicle owners traffic tickets by mail.

If you don’t have a rear plate, your plate is obscured or, as with 3,200 state cars, your plate is considered “undercover” and not listed in computerized files, and the traffic camera can’t find you.

Iowa has about 107,000 vehicles registered under the IRP, Smith said. About half are trailers, whose owners are required to put the plate on the back of the unit.

Another 52,400 vehicles, including 22,700 tractors — the power unit of a semi — only have front plates.

Also included are nearly 10,000 trucks and 223 buses. Large vehicles that operate in more than one jurisdiction and are used to transport property or people for hire are required to register with the IRP.

Because most semis on the road are carrying loads, the trailer being towed would have a rear license plate that could be ticketed by traffic cameras. But the owner of the trailer isn’t necessarily the person driving the vehicle.

Complaints from vehicle owners

Hughes, the traffic camera opponent from Marion, learned about the IRP from a friend who registers his personal pickup along with his semi. Hughes has written to the DOT about the number of vehicles that could escape ticketing under the plan.

Tracy George, DOT rules administrator, wrote Hughes last week to tell him his comments would be considered as part of the review of proposed rules for Iowa’s traffic cameras.

The Cedar Rapids Police Department has received at least two complaints from owners of non-motorized units — in one case a trailer and in another case a camper — who received traffic camera citations when someone else was pulling the units.

“One was an out-of-state company that owns hundreds of trailers,” Cedar Rapids Police Sgt. Mike Wallerstedt said. “They don’t necessarily keep track of which truck is pulling which trailer.”

The company appealed the ticket and it was dismissed, he said.

The Cedar Rapids City Attorney decided last spring that campers and trailers meet the definition of vehicles and could be ticketed by the traffic cameras, Wallerstedt said. The department declined to share any documents showing this change in policy, saying it is confidential communication between the department and its attorney.

The Gazette attempted to contact CRST International and Heartland Express, two Corridor trucking companies, but they did not return calls about the story. The Iowa Motor Truck Association also declined comment.

Traffic cameras unfair?

The Gazette reported in July that 3,200 state vehicles have license plates not listed in computerized files. Law enforcement officers can track the plates with a phone call or Teletype query to the DOT, but the vehicles can’t be ticketed by traffic cameras.

The undercover plates are intended primarily for law enforcement officers involved in surveillance, stings or top-secret investigations. But their use has expanded to lottery delivery drivers, disease investigators and mental health professionals, among others.

Gov. Terry Branstad ordered a review of the undercover plates in July. That review, expected to be released this month, likely will include tighter criteria for getting the plates, said Mark Lowe, director of the DOT’s Motor Vehicle Division.

“Enforcement in the traditional sense was a live person with a live officer,” Lowe said. “Now, with red light cameras, they force a civil enforcement on the owner of the vehicle. That enforcement technology has put a new demand on how we track records.”

The DOT proposed new rules Oct. 2 that would require cities to submit a six-point annual justification for using traffic cameras on state highways. Police chiefs and other local leaders oppose the restrictions, saying traffic enforcement decisions should be made locally.

The DOT will hold a public hearing on the proposed rules Oct. 30 in Ankeny. The plan could be implemented in February.

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