Staff Columnist

In Iowa: Iowa bucking the traffic surveillance trend (but not in the right direction)

Traffic travels in 2016 past the speed camera on northbound Interstate 380 at J Avenue in Cedar Rapids. The city’s speed cameras are not issuing tickets while the program is being studied. The city has said it will give residents plenty of notice before the cameras become operational. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Traffic travels in 2016 past the speed camera on northbound Interstate 380 at J Avenue in Cedar Rapids. The city’s speed cameras are not issuing tickets while the program is being studied. The city has said it will give residents plenty of notice before the cameras become operational. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa is moving the wrong way on traffic cameras.

The use of surveillance cameras for law enforcement has increased for many years, but the number of cities with traffic cameras now is shrinking, according to data published this month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which supports the use of speed and red light cameras.

The report counts 146 communities with speed cameras and 417 with red light cameras. The use of speed cameras has held steady, but jurisdictions with red light cameras have declined by more than 100 from a peak in 2012. It seems policymakers elsewhere are beginning to recognize the public’s growing distaste for the trend toward omnipresent surveillance. Yet while other communities are taking cameras down, Iowa’s government is emboldening the surveillers.

The Iowa Supreme Court this year ruled in favor of local governments’ ability to cite drivers with cameras. In three separate opinions, the court ruled cities’ traffic camera programs, with a questionable appeals process, is largely in line with Americans’ due process rights. In another case, justices decided the Iowa Department of Transportation lacks the authority to regulate cities’ use of traffic cameras.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators proposed a bill to ban traffic cameras. Not only did that legislation fail to gain adequate support, a watered down bill to regulate traffic cameras also died before the session adjourned.

The Legislature’s inaction is disappointing, but maybe it shouldn’t be surprising.

Since traffic cameras mostly have been put to use in Iowa’s largest cities, including Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, local government leaders who support the technology have a bipartisan group of influential friends in the Legislature to oppose proposals that would cut into city revenue.

Referendums to initiate or uphold traffic camera programs in other states have rarely won the approval of voters, and some lawmakers in other states are now turning away from traffic surveillance, according to a report from the Stateline news service. New Jersey discontinued the use of traffic cameras in 2014, and the state now has a proposal to stymie other states’ traffic camera citations by refusing to release citizens’ personal data from the state’s driver database.

One major problem is Iowa is one of only a few states where traffic cameras are not specifically authorized by state law. Instead, municipal governments have invented their own traffic camera programs, unchecked by state oversight, even by the Iowa DOT, thanks to this year’s Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

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According to the new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety survey, the highest available fine for Iowa’s traffic speed cameras is the highest in the nation at $500, more than twice as much as the average in other states.

The reasons to oppose automated traffic enforcement are many. Studies offer mixed results about cameras’ impacts on road safety, cities often team up with private corporations to issue tickets and Americans’ ability to appeal their citations is often lacking. Worst of all to me, there are no reliable oversight mechanisms in place to ensure the government doesn’t abuse its ability to monitor our location with all of the license plate numbers cameras record.

No wonder other communities are turning away from traffic cameras. It’s time for Iowa to make a U-turn.

l Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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