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Public Safety

Nation's use of traffic cameras peaks

Iowa debates as some lawmakers elsewhere backtrack

Traffic on Aug. 25, 2015, approaches the speed enforcement traffic cameras on Interstate 380 northbound near the J Avenue exit in Cedar Rapids. The four speed camera locations on I-380 and the westbound speed detection at First Avenue and 10th Street NE have not issued speeding tickets since April 25, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic on Aug. 25, 2015, approaches the speed enforcement traffic cameras on Interstate 380 northbound near the J Avenue exit in Cedar Rapids. The four speed camera locations on I-380 and the westbound speed detection at First Avenue and 10th Street NE have not issued speeding tickets since April 25, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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Have you had it with automated traffic cameras? If so, you’re not alone — a growing number of states and cities are getting restless. too.

Several states have moved to get rid of the cameras or squelch their use in local communities as complaints pour in from drivers who think the cameras are there to reap revenue rather than prevent crashes.

The use of the automated cameras has never survived a referendum, according to the National Motorists Association, a consumer group.

But the insurance industry has fought back, pitting its studies against others about the cameras’ impact on safety.

Earlier this year, Iowa lawmakers were debating the fate of automated traffic cameras until the waning days of the 2018 legislative session.

Competing proposals would have allowed them under more regulations, or banned them. But the Legislature adjourned without a conclusion — leaving the issue to perhaps come back up in the session starting January.

Sioux City Mayor Bob Scott, an independent and a supporter of his city’s use of traffic cameras, said the devices have reduced speeding and red-light violations and garnered about $2 million a year that is spent on public safety. He said his major objection to the bill in the Iowa Senate to ban them is that it undermines cities’ independence.

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“For me, it’s a home-rule issue more than anything,” he said, adding that the “guys in Des Moines” continue to “take away our ability under home rule, and I’m not bashful about telling legislators about that.”

While Cedar Rapids continues to operate red-light cameras, four speed camera locations on Interstate 380 — northbound at Diagonal Drive, north and southbound at J Avenue, and southbound at First Avenue — and the westbound speed detection at First Avenue and 10th Street NE have not issued speeding tickets since April 25, 2017.

They were halted while the Iowa Supreme Court considered who — cities or the state Department of Transporation — had the authority under the existing law to regulate them.

While Cedar Rapids won that dispute, the speed cameras have remained idle while the city ponders what to do.

In New Jersey, some lawmakers are pushing legislation that would take the fight there further than ever before — and have implications for other states.

New Jersey ended its red-light camera program four years ago. Now, some Garden State lawmakers want to hamper other states’ enforcement by prohibiting the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission from giving out identifying information on their residents to other states. That means if a New Jersey tag holder gets a ticket in another state because of a speed or red-light camera, New Jersey wouldn’t provide the name and address associated with the plate so the ticket couldn’t be mailed.

In Ohio, a law was enacted last year that restricted cities’ ability to set up cameras at red lights. But the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the law conflicted with cities’ home-rule authority that gives them jurisdiction over traffic enforcement. Even so, Columbus gave up on the cameras, refusing to reinstall them because residents were outraged.

And this year, Ohio lawmakers are back. The Ohio House approved a bill in March that would require cities to adjudicate traffic cases in municipal court instead of using an administrative process and, in a dig at the safety vs. revenue argument, would cut funding to cities by the amount they get from camera tickets. The bill awaits Senate action.

In Arizona, the House voted to ban the cameras and the bill is awaiting action in the Senate.

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Miami ended its red-light camera program in March, and voters have banned red-light cameras by referendum in at least seven Texas cities.

Indications are that the love affair with traffic cameras — especially at red lights — has peaked and is in decline.

Nationwide, 418 communities had red-light cameras and 146 communities had speed cameras as of September, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry group that supports cameras.

That’s down from a high of about 540 communities with red-light cameras in 2012. Speed cameras have remained steady, the institute said.

“I would say it’s peaked and it’s down by 20 percent or so,” said Paul Fisher, a University of Arizona researcher who studies traffic. “People seem to really not like red-light cameras. The referendums almost always lead to removal.”

Researchers Paul Fisher and Justin Gallagher showed in a 2017 study that red-light cameras changed the type of crashes at intersections but found there was “no evidence of a reduction in total accidents.”

The researchers, who looked at intersections in Houston, found there was a reduction in “angle” crashes — like side crashes and head-on crashes — but an increase in rear-end crashes, as drivers hit the brakes when the light turned yellow.

The insurance industry group, the IIHS, cites its own research that found the opposite.

“A 2011 IIHS study of large cities with long-standing red light cameras found that cameras reduced the fatal red light running crash rate by 24 percent and the rate of all types of fatal crashes at signalized intersections by 17 percent,” it said in a report.

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Chuck Farmer, the group’s vice president of research, said a study from Montgomery County, Md., found that when speed cameras were instituted “you immediately see a reduction in people speeding; 80 percent in the first few months. Over time, we see about an 8 percent reduction in crashes that are speed-related and a 19 percent reduction in serious and fatal crashes.”

After going six months without speed cameras issuing tickets on I-380 in Cedar Rapids, the speed drivers were going through the S-curve was up. But the impact on safety was less clear. A city and state study, which used different methodologies, reached different conclusions.

Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and provided by Reuters, contributed to this report.

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