Government

Chief: Turn I-380 speed cameras back on

This time, proceeds would go to hire 10 officers

Traffic, seen Tuesday in an aerial photograph, flows under the automated traffic cameras on Interstate 380 northbound near J Avenue NE. The speed cameras have not been issuing tickets since April 25, 2017, but the Cedar Rapids City Council will soon consider a plan to turn then back on and direct the proceeds from speeding tickets fines to hire more police officers. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic, seen Tuesday in an aerial photograph, flows under the automated traffic cameras on Interstate 380 northbound near J Avenue NE. The speed cameras have not been issuing tickets since April 25, 2017, but the Cedar Rapids City Council will soon consider a plan to turn then back on and direct the proceeds from speeding tickets fines to hire more police officers. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids officials are considering flipping the switch back on for the Interstate 380 automated traffic cameras and directing proceeds from speeding tickets to hire 10 police officers.

The speed cameras have not been issuing tickets since a Polk County judge on April 25, 2017, upheld an Iowa Department of Transportation order to turn off or move several cameras locations around the state, including the four on I-380. The Iowa Supreme Court reversed that decision on April 27, 2018, opening the door to begin issuing tickets again.

“I think the data will show that since the cameras have been off, speeds have definitely increased and crashes have begun to creep back up,” police Chief Wayne Jerman said.

Police are planning to make a presentation to the City Council showing crash and speed data on the interstate’s S-curve through downtown near where the cameras are stationed, propose modifications to the city code governing traffic cameras and propose directing proceeds to hiring new officers. A date for the presentation has not yet been scheduled.

If the council approves, notice to the public would be given of when the cameras would turn on and a two-week grace period with no fines would be provided, according to police.

Jerman has been a staunch advocate for traffic cameras, saying “study after study has proved” they make roads safer by getting drivers to slow down. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is among the organizations that support traffic cameras.

Jerman said traffic cameras are not about making money, which has been a refrain of critics including some in the Statehouse who have tried unsuccessfully to ban them in Iowa.

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The cameras had been generating more than $3 million annually for the city and $2 million for the city’s vendor, Gatso USA, of Beverly, Mass.

While Des Moines turned its cameras back on in June, Cedar Rapids held off to study its program as traffic camera lawsuits from motorists proceeded.

Police are recommending amending the ordinance to reflect an Iowa Supreme Court opinion from August, which found the city was sidestepping the state’s municipal infraction procedures. Under the current ordinance, ticket recipients who don’t respond to notices are by default found liable without going through the municipal process.

The amendment would eliminate the city’s administrative appeal process. Instead, the city would file a municipal infraction for those who want to contest tickets and those who ignore tickets.

A Linn County District Court judge or magistrate would determine liability, Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said. As in the past, infractions would not affect a person’s driving record, according to officials.

As a point of reference, in fiscal 2016, 45 percent or about 69,000 of the 154,323 tickets issued on all cameras in Cedar Rapids were unpaid. Approximately 90 percent of all traffic camera tickets are issued on I-380.

In addition to the 10 new officers — two of whom would be assigned to the Police Community Action Team and the remainder to support increased call volume in the patrol division — Cedar Rapids would hire an administrative assistant to process the municipal infractions, Buelow said.

No other changes to the camera program or locations are proposed at this point, according to police. Speed cameras are located at where I-380 crosses Diagonal Drive SW and J Avenue NE in the northbound lanes; and First Avenue W and J Avenue NE in the southbound lanes. Three other camera locations, which include speed and red light functions, are located at the intersections of First Avenue E and 10th Street, Williams Boulevard and 16th Avenue SW, and First Avenue W and L Street. Aside from the speed detection on the westbound cameras of First and 10th, which were also turned off in connection with the Iowa DOT lawsuit, the intersection cameras have remained on throughout.

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Cedar Rapids police provided data for periods with and without cameras for crashes at the four I-380 locations for January 2014 to October and speed data for the four I-380 locations for May 2 to Oct. 2 in 2016 and 2017 and for the locations at Diagonal Drive SW northbound and J Avenue NE southbound for July 15, 2017, to Aug. 31. While the interstate cameras stopped issuing tickets April 25, 2017, they kept collecting data. At some point, the cameras were turned off entirely, but the cameras at Diagonal Drive and J Avenue southbound were turned back on again to collect data.

The Iowa DOT provided before-and-after data measuring the number of crashes, severity of injuries and types of crashes from April 25, 2012, to July 21, which is the most recent data the agency had available. Additional speed data was provided by Iowa State University Institute for Transportation based on recordings from nine sensors on the S-curve for two sample periods: April 25, 2016, to April 24, 2017, and April 25, 2017, to April 24.

The city’s data sets showed a significantly greater portion of traffic at two I-380 camera locations — northbound lanes near Diagonal Drive SW and southbound lanes at J Avenue NE — were speeding. The most dramatic increases were among those going 12 mph or more above the speed limit, which is 55 mph on the S-curve.

Camera Locations with Speed Readings

Hover over each camera location for speeds that drivers were clocked at both while cameras were active, and after cameras were deactivated.

Source: Iowa DOT and City of Cedar Rapids

Crashes in the roughly 2-mile segment including and between the camera locations were up 27 percent, but crashes with injuries were down 18 percent, according to the Iowa DOT data. The city’s data, which includes only crashes city forces responded to, shows crashes overall increased 32 percent.

Here are some key findings:

• 5.9 percent of the 2 million vehicles that passed under I-380 cameras at Diagonal Drive were traveling 67 mph or faster in July and August, when cameras weren’t issuing tickets, up from .22 percent in a 2016 sample period when the cameras were ticketing, according to Iowa DOT data. Speeding 56 to 66 mph increased from 43.7 percent in 2016 to 71.3 percent in 2018, and those obeying the speed limit decreased from 47.5 to 22.8 percent. In the 2016 sample, a speed could not be recorded for 8.6 percent of vehicles passing the cameras, which could impact those findings and the extent of the increases.

• ISU data found average speeds away from the cameras had increased from 57.6 to 58 mph.

• DOT data showed an increase from 2.95 crashes and 1.1 crashes with injuries per month with cameras to 3.73 crashes and .93 crashes with injuries per month without cameras. The city also reported 5.13 crashes and 2.2 crashes with injuries a month before the cameras went live in 2010.

• Single-vehicle crashes increased 31 percent, sideswipe crashes increased by 121 percent and rear-end crashes declined by 43 percent with the cameras off.

• Seven fatal crashes occurred on the S-curve from 2003-09 before the cameras were installed, one fatal crash between 2010 and 2017 with the cameras on, and none since the cameras have been back off.

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Jerman and Sgt. Mike Wallerstedt said the data supports their belief the road has become more dangerous without the cameras. Still, Wallerstedt cautioned against inferring too much given the short time span.

Jerman said the data is “overwhelming” that drivers are more likely to become involved in crashes if excessive speeding is involved, so he expects the trend of more crashes to continue and the occurrence of injuries to increase if the cameras remain off.

“You can get injured going 55 mph, in a slow-speed collision, now add 12-13 mph,” he said. “The likelihood of someone being injured increases dramatically. That’s why we are so passionate about slowing people down to keep them safe.”

Steve Gent, director of traffic and safety at the Iowa DOT, said not enough data exists to say whether the roads are any more or less safe without the traffic cameras. He cautioned the samples are so small in some cases they could be influenced by a random occurrence, such as severe weather.

He also challenged some of the police department’s take-aways.

Traffic volumes on I-380 have been increasing by about 2 percent per year, and the data set without the cameras included two summers, which are the busiest traffic times of the year.

“We would expect the ‘after’ data to be higher because there is more traffic out there,” he said.

Also, he questioned the evidence of dramatic increases in speeding. Measuring speeds based just on the traffic camera locations is faulty, he said, because people change their behavior for the cameras. He said better data comes from ISU because it captures speed away from the cameras.

“Almost all of the drivers knew where the cameras were, so as police officers have told me, people who know where the cameras are slow down at the cameras and speed up just past the cameras,” Gent said. “Providing this information is like measuring the speeds at a location today and then tomorrow going out there and putting a police car at that location and measuring speeds. Obviously speeds will go down with a police car.”

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Dale Todd, a City Council member and the city’s public safety and youth services committee, said he supports the effort to turn the cameras back on, particularly coupling the hiring of additional police with traffic camera revenue.

In the past, revenue had gone to the police department general fund.

He said it is “good fiscal sense and good public policy” and he looks forward to putting the new officers to work “in some unique ways,” such as a downtown beat cop.

“Having received an occasional traffic camera ticket in the past, I am not complaining,” Todd said. “If it can make people think twice about speeding where they shouldn’t, then I can justify the use.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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