116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The first thing you need to know about red-light cameras is that they are an admission of failure — maybe not a willing admission, but an admission nonetheless.
Most people do not drive recklessly, but they respond to the design speed of the road. The wider the lanes, the less friction from cross-traffic or opposing traffic, the faster people drive and the more they engage in distracting behavior like talking on phones (the $25 term for this is “risk homeostasis”).
So where we have a systematic problem of speeding and red-light running, as with the six Marion intersections, we find roads that are designed to say “Drive like you’re in a car commercial” rather than “Hey! Watch out for this intersection.”
The worst-designed roads in America are our stroads, a term coined by engineer Charles Marohn of Strong Towns to denote trafficways that try to be both roads (moving traffic quickly from one destination to another) and streets (centers of productive human activity). The combination of high speeds, cars going multiple directions and pedestrians is exceptionally dangerous and is where the preponderance of our deadliest crashes occur.
We find roads that are designed to say “Drive like you’re in a car commercial” rather than “Hey! Watch out for this intersection.”
Collins Road, Edgewood Road and Williams Boulevard in Cedar Rapids are prime examples of stroads, as are all of the streets involved in the Marion intersections at issue here, except for 31st Street.
The second thing to know about red-light cameras is that they have proved effective, at least under certain circumstances. Within the last 15 years, New York City installed red-light cameras as part of an effort to reduce a variety of traffic problems; serious injuries at those intersections dropped by well over 50 percent by 2017, with spillover improvements at nearby intersections. France cut the number of traffic fatalities by a third between 2001 and 2005 with significant investments in safety including thousands of speed cameras around the country.
Red-light cameras can be part of the solution where problems are correctly identified. The issues at the targeted intersections in Marion are not as clear as they might be. Police chief Mike Kitsmiller told the Marion City Council last month that those six intersections featured 347 crashes in the last six years, which is about one crash per week, or about one crash per intersection every six weeks. Of those crashes, 46 were attributable to red-light running, which comes to slightly more than one such incident per intersection per year. We can’t tell you whether that’s a lot or a little — obviously, you’d like the frequency to be zero — but even success comparable to the New York and French studies cited above would be barely noticeable at this level.
A risk of red-light cameras is an increase in citizen cynicism, particularly given the revenue stream a public-private partnership with the Sensys Gatso company is likely to generate. Citizens might be incorrect in attributing the policy’s motivation to revenue — similar charges were leveled in New York City — but governments everywhere already have enough on their plates without giving their citizens more reason to doubt the legitimacy of their policies.
If Marion is convinced these intersections have genuine safety problems, Marohn, the engineer and Strong Towns advocate cited above, argues for first observing and redesigning the roads.
These six cases in Marion all involve state or federal highways, so this requires working with the Iowa Department of Transportation on design improvements. Only when the design has changed “are you ready to install traffic cameras because the vast majority of drivers are going to be operating at speeds that are safe, which is now the default. Speed cameras will catch those people who are deviating from that baseline of safety, which is where you want that enforcement effort focused.”
We recommend beginning with Seventh Avenue and 31st Street, because that’s where we’re guessing you would encounter the highest level of cyclists and pedestrians, although we wouldn’t be surprised if the intersections on 10th Avenue get a fair amount of mixed traffic from nearby mobile home parks.
Bruce Nesmith and Ben Kaplan are co-founders of the local civic group Corridor Urbanism.