Iowa rules put focus of traffic cameras on safety

Transportation director wants shift away from revenue

Rod Boshart
Published: December 31 2012 | 10:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 3:55 am in

DES MOINES — State officials say traffic-enforcement devices, such as speed or red-light cameras, need to be integrated into a holistic, statewide transportation perspective that is driven by safety rather than revenue.

“I think there is a growing concern that you could have every village in the state decide they want to put a speed camera up,” Gov. Terry Branstad said in a recent interview. “When you see this explosion all of a sudden of all these municipalities that want to put these cameras up, doesn’t it make more sense to do it in a thoughtful way? I think it does for the state highway system.”

To that end, Paul Trombino III, director of the state Department of Transportation, had his agency formulate guidelines for automated camera enforcement on Iowa’s primary highway system that view the devices as an effective tool to enhance safety but only after other engineering and enforcement solutions have been explored and implemented.

The DOT guidelines indicate that automated enforcement systems should only be used at locations where traffic safety data document a significant crash history or a high risk of such occurrences and when an evaluation indicates the technology can directly address the primary traffic safety concern.

“Seldom should an automated enforcement system be used as a long-term solution for speeding or red-light running,” according to the DOT guidelines.

“Instead, a traffic safety plan should be developed that includes solutions, such as infrastructure improvements, use of innovative traffic control systems, alternative enforcement approaches and public education, which can eliminate the need for automated enforcement.”

Trombino said the state is requiring cities seeking to install enforcement cameras on the primary highway system to submit a justification report with supporting evidence for why the automated system is needed. Each jurisdiction with active cameras must evaluate their effectiveness and submit an annual report to DOT officials who will use the information to assess the continued need for such systems at each authorized location.

“If we think a traffic safety device or speed camera is not the right move, we should say that,” said Trombino, who noted that his preference is having a law enforcement officer dealing with a driver directly.

He said approaching a violation from the standpoint of a vehicle where the driver doesn’t matter tends to lessen the broader safety benefit for customers of the transportation system.

“Sometimes I think these devices cloud a little bit the discussion on safety because of the potential in the amount of revenue,” he said. “Finding a process that lessens that revenue aspect to it, I think will help to make sure we deal with it purely from a safety perspective.”

Officials in the Des Moines western suburb of Windsor Heights had planned to install fixed traffic cameras above the westbound lanes of Interstate 235 that are patrolled by that city, but DOT officials denied the request last fall, the first such denial made by the state. The city has since filed a lawsuit in an effort to get the decision reversed.

The issue of banning the cameras or establishing uniform fines and rules for operation has come before lawmakers in previous sessions but failed to garner consensus.

Top lawmakers expect the issue will surface again during the 2013 legislative session but do not have a good sense of how it will be received given than nearly one-fifth of the 150-member 85th General Assembly will be freshmen following the 2012 reapportionment election.

Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock said he continues to hear mixed reviews among legislators who are evenly divided between those who view the cameras as an invasion of privacy and constitutional rights versus those who feel for safe and secure on highways monitored by the devices.

“Where they are located is pretty strongly driven by economics,” he said. “The technology is expensive and unless you’re in a very high-traffic area, it’s very hard to justify the expense.”

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said it “makes sense” to place some regulatory or oversight mechanism for automated camera enforcement in Iowa law and then allow local governments to decide what works best for them within that context.

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