Contradicting Studies On Traffic Camera Safety Impact Make Regulation A Judgment Call

Plenty of studies and expert opinion about traffic cameras’ effectiveness can supply verbal ammunition for both sides of controversial proposals to regulate these cameras, or ban them altogether.

But the “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” mix of conclusions from those studies and opinions has left state lawmakers pondering what to do about the cameras with this simple fact:

Their decision will be a judgment call, not an action on something evident that needs to be fixed.

Although much of the debate focuses on city governments’ intent when using them, or on fairness to motorists, studies focusing on the cameras’ merits as a safety tool show that when they hurt, or help, depends on where and why they are used.

When used as a general enforcement device for any or all intersections or speed location, they produce reliable revenue streams even though they are not effective improving safety, and, in some places can endanger safety. However, when used at specific locations to address a specific safety problem the devices produce good results, an analysis of various studies shows.

State Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale

State Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale

In recent weeks consideration of the cameras’ merits was overshadowed as political leaders’ positions hardened. State Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, announced plans for more legislative moves to ban the cameras outright. That would be a major escalation over a much milder bill introduced early in the session and still under consideration. The earlier bill merely would add restrictions and safeguards for motorists.

On the other side of the debate, the city of Sioux City has gone to Woodbury County District Court to challenge the legality of new rules by the Department of Transportation that also restrict use of the cameras and require documentation that the cameras are needed to improve safety.

The central arguments among advocates and opponents of traffic cameras often straddle the facts in varying degrees, and generally fall along this dividing line:

  • Proponents say these automated cameras are helpful tools in changing people’s driving behaviors;
  • Opponents believe these cameras are nothing but safety hazards and revenue generators.

WHO radio talk show host Simon Conway argues for the last point.

“The cameras are about money and only money,” he said in an IowaWatch interview. “Cameras have absolutely nothing to do with safety, and the devices actually cause wrecks. If yellow-light times were increased by one second, wrecks at those intersections can be reduced by 50 percent.”

A speed and red light camera monitors the intersection of Second Ave and Sixth Street SW in Downtown Cedar Rapids.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

A speed and red light camera monitors the intersection of Second Ave and Sixth Street SW in Downtown Cedar Rapids.

But Conway is only partially correct. Studies show cameras help in some intersections and location, but not in others. And, although a 2012 Iowa State University report confirms that an additional second of yellow-light time probably would reduce wrecks by 50 percent, that reduction would last for a short while before motorists returned to their old habit of trying to beat the yellow, traffic safety experts argue.

“So increasing (it) may improve the safety for a while,” said Steve Gent, director at the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Office of Traffic and Safety, “until drivers adapt, at which time the safety would go back to the pre-test levels.”

A car racing to beat a yellow also could pose a danger to pedestrian traffic, a situation about which Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine has to worry. Every day, his department deals with thousands of student pedestrians from the University of Iowa crossing downtown Iowa City streets and intersections, and traffic cameras would be another tool to ensure their safety, he said.

“With the university here, we may have 10,000 pedestrians out there at one time, and it is only a matter of time before someone gets hit,” Hargadine said. “I think the cameras do modify people’s driving behaviors.”

A bill, House File 2202, which would restrict use of the devices. It passed through a crucial legislative funnel period late last month and was referred to the House Transportation Committee on March 14. It would limit the fines to $75, require police officers to review the images of the violation before issuing tickets, require cities to post signs on the approach to where the traffic camera is in use and make annual statistical reports on the type and rate of accidents at the locations.

In February, new state rules – the ones Sioux City is challenging in court – started requiring counties using the devices to submit annual reports to the Department of Transportation that document their effectiveness.

“If these cameras are working, that’s great,” Gent said. “If not, then maybe the cameras shouldn’t be used.”

He said, “We have the authority to tell the community to modify the cameras, including up to removing them altogether.”

State Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, opposes the rules, saying in a recent Des Moines Register story that they undermined home rule provisions.

However, Gent said his department only regulates the red light and speed cameras on the primary highway systems including interstates, U.S. routes and Iowa routes.

Many studies on these devices conclude that automated red light and speed cameras are increasing accidents at intersections.

For example, in 2004, researchers at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, N.C., studied 303 intersections over 57 months and concluded red light cameras do not reduce crashes and are associated with increases in certain types of crashes and in crash severity.

The number of cameras is measured in the number of approaches monitored, which shows the number of lanes or directions monitored by a distinct camera unit. Often, one intersection can have more than one camera unit.

The number of cameras is measured in the number of approaches monitored, which shows the number of lanes or directions monitored by a distinct camera unit. Often, one intersection can have more than one camera unit.

In a 2007 study, the Virginia Research Council found that red light cameras associated with more rear-end vehicle accidents. It said those cameras are connected to crashes because drivers attempt to abruptly stop at controlled intersections.

But the same study also found mixed results in its statistics. For example, it also found a decrease in running red light crashes but a net increase in costs associated with crashes at traffic-camera intersections. The report’s ultimate recommendation was this: “the decision to install a red light camera be made on an intersection-by-intersection basis.”

In Iowa, the same trends developed in the city of Clive after it installed automated cameras in 2008. City leaders have decided to take them down in June.

Overall, car accidents in Clive are down. However, at the intersections with red light cameras, accidents are up 105 percent.

“The 105 percent increase in accidents tells me the cameras are not fixing the underlying problem,” Clive City Councilman Michael McCoy said. “We need to go back and start looking at other ways to fix the problem, such as lowering the speed limit or putting flashing yellow lights before the intersection.”

Michael McCoy, Clive City Council

Michael McCoy, Clive City Council

McCoy said Clive initially installed the camera systems because it needed additional revenue, and city leaders thought the cameras provided safety as well.

“I wasn’t a councilman back when the city installed the cameras, but I think it was just a Band-Aid to solve a problem that is much more complex than putting something up that takes your picture and sends out a $100 fine,” McCoy said.

Gent, who looks at the situation from a traffic and safety engineering perspective, said safety counter-measures other than automated cameras can be more effective and should be considered before the cameras.

“It’s easy to pick the low cost and the quick implement ones,” Gent said. “The automated cameras are not the safety measure you to go first. They are intrusive, controversial and expensive from a societal standpoint.”

But Gent said cameras used in the right locations can improve intersections where crashes are common if nothing else is working.

Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa adjunct law faculty member, former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, author and public policy commentator, said, “I’m not opposed to the use of technology, but I want the city to explain to me why this is better than what we have now. I want to know ahead of time what the issues are and how this might be unjust. What are the possible implications?”

Zaun, the Urbandale senator, is a member of the Transportation Committee and a former Urbandale mayor. He said he favors banning traffic enforcement cameras altogether. His concerns include the lack of due process and the devices’ accuracy.

Sam Hargadine, Iowa City Police Chief

Sam Hargadine, Iowa City Police Chief

“You are presumed guilty first with these traffic enforcement cameras,” Zaun said.

But Hargadine, the Iowa City police chief, disagrees. “There is due process for the cameras because the drivers can appeal the citation,” he said.

Hargadine said companies that monitor the cameras have human beings who review the videos once the camera goes off. If the vendor agrees with the camera, the video or image is sent to the police department and a sworn officer reviews it. Officers who agree that a traffic violation happened sign the citation and it is sent to the vehicle’s owner.

In Cedar Rapids, out-of-state vendors received 40 percent of the speed camera fines and 30 percent profit of the red light camera fines motorists paid from July 2012 to June 2013, according to a state Department of Transportation report obtained by IowaWatch. In Des Moines, the vendors received 38 percent and 62 percent, respectively. The local governments kept the remaining portion.

But while Hargadine supports using automated cameras, Iowa City prohibits their use. The City Council rejected them when adopting an ordinance last year, pre-empting a possible general election vote on them.

As the police chief in a busy city, Hargadine said he sees the need for these devices. “Most people do want to obey the law, but if they can get away with running a red light, they will,” he said.

“In Cedar Rapids, everyone I talk to slows down because of the cameras, myself included,” he said. “No one wants to pay a fine if they don’t have to.”

From July 2012 through June 2013, 4,402 people in Cedar Rapids received tickets from red light cameras, state transportation data show. In Des Moines, 10,921 received tickets.

The number of cameras is measured in approaches, which shows the number of lanes or directions monitored by a distinct camera unit. Often, one intersection can have more than one camera unit.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

The number of cameras is measured in approaches, which shows the number of lanes or directions monitored by a distinct camera unit. Often, one intersection can have more than one camera unit.

For speed cameras, 86,552 people and 42,531 people received tickets in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, respectively.

The cost of fines from traffic camera citations can vary. The Cedar Rapids public information office said the penalty for running a red light is $100. In Des Moines the same violation costs $65, according to city officials. For speeding violations in Cedar Rapids going one to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit ranges from $25 to $75. In Des Moines, the fine for going one to 20 miles per hour over is $65 to $75.

Zaun said he recognizes that the cameras have reduced accidents along Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids, but that does not change his stance because so many more studies prove the opposite.

“Ultimately I want these banned. This is a nonpartisan issue, there are Republicans and Democrats who are equally frustrated,” Zaun said. “It seems like the older generation doesn’t have a problem with the cameras, and the younger people really don’t like them. It’s more of an age discrepancy than a partisan discrepancy.”

But age is not the only demographic entering the camera controversy. An individual’s income can be jeopardized by these citations. For example, going 10 miles over the speed limit on the interstate highway in Sioux City results in a $168 ticket. In Des Moines, the same ticket costs $65.

Johnson sees this as a problem. “For the top 1 percent the fine is as much as they left for the tip on last night’s dinner. Whereas for someone who is working on minimum wage, that’s big money to them,” he said. “What this is about is profit maximizing for the independent firms and local governments.”

Gent said, “It’s a concern when the public, the people we serve, feel like they are being tricked or messed with because then they begin to lose trust in their government.”


Kelsey Block is a student who originally wrote this story for a class taught by IowaWatch co-founder Stephen Berry at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication. IowaWatch trains college students to do investigative and community journalism in an in-depth, ethical manner.
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KWWL-TV in Waterloo, KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids, KTIV-TV in Sioux City and WHO-TV in Des Moines aired stories based on this report. A version of this IowaWatch story was published by The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA), Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Sioux City Journal. Please support the nonprofit journalism IowaWatch provides with a donation at this link.

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