By Sean Leary
Last week’s article established the City of Muscatine’s conflict with the Iowa Department of Transportation over the legality of and jurisdiction over Muscatine’s five traffic cameras. Under particular dispute is the traffic camera at the intersection of Highway 61 and University Drive.

The legality and jurisdiction of traffic cameras is also under debate in the Iowa Legislature. On Tuesday, February 27, the Iowa Senate passed legislation banning all traffic cameras in the state. The bill next goes for consideration to the House, where representatives have debated whether to regulate, regulate, or ban the cameras.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding them, their unpopularity among a large swath of the population, or the questions regarding their effectiveness, traffic cameras are becoming more common throughout the country. According to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, as of February 2018, 422 communities have red light camera programs and 143 communities have speed camera programs.

In Iowa, the towns of Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Sioux City, and Muscatine all have red light cameras. Those utilizing speed cameras include Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Muscatine, Polk County, Sioux City, and Windsor Heights.

According to a report from the Iowa DOT, in 2010 Muscatine contracted Gatso USA to install cameras to monitor red light and speed violations, at no cost to the city, at five intersections. Those intersections included Washington Street at Park Avenue (north and south approaches), Cleveland Street at Park Avenue (north and south approaches), Cedar Street at Houser Street (east and west approaches), University Drive at US Highway 61 (westbound approach), and Mulberry Avenue at US Highway 61 (westbound approach).

According to the Iowa Department of Transportation’s official report on crash statistics, chapter 144, titled “Automated Traffic Enforcement on the Primary Road System:” “Automated enforcement shall only be considered in areas with a documented high-crash or high-risk location in any of the following: (1) An area or intersection with a significant history of crashes which can be attributed to red-light running or speeding. (2) A school zone.”

All five of the areas would seem to suit that criteria, according to data.

But their use goes beyond either parameter. As the city states in its report to IDOT, the cameras have multiple uses aside from ticketing. Those include license plate recognition for Amber Alerts and other major crimes occurring near the intersections. The city’s report to IDOT states that “video that the system archives has been used multiple times as evidence in court for citation issued due to traffic crashes in the area of the ATE equipment.”

According to the city’s report, in addition, the video from the systems has also been used to locate stolen vehicles, investigate drive-by shootings, and identify a vehicle involved in a shooting which led to a search warrant and an arrest of a suspect.

As the IIHS notes on its home page, the vagaries of the constitutionality and liabilities incurred due to the cameras vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. However, aside from the the previously listed benefits, the official justification for them from officials tends to be consistent. Officials routinely claim that they curtail speeding related accidents, increase driver safety overall, and save money for the cities in which they’re posted–regardless of any income they generate–solely due to saving police labor hours for enforcement of traffic regulations.
“Public safety is the priority,” Phil Sargent, assistant police chief for the City of Muscatine, said in a February 8 press release from the city. “That is accomplished by driver modification created by the knowledge of the ATE presence and by allowing uniformed officers to be elsewhere in the city to assist citizens.”

But has that been shown to be the case at each of the areas of the cameras? And have they been effective? Check back next week for the next installment in the series.