Traffic cameras have clear benefit

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: February 22 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:00 am in

By Jim Walters


I’d guess that Iowa City attorney James Larew (“IDOT’s rules on cameras don’t go nearly far enough” Feb. 15 guest column) isn’t a frequent walker. Or bicyclist. He doesn’t seem to be well-read in recent literature on traffic control, safety or road planning.

Larew considers any use of cameras for traffic control to be ill-advised because he thinks they are employed only for generating revenue and because some 3,000-plus government vehicles and certain large trucks now seem to be exempt from getting ticketed.

This last matter — which is Larew’s primary argument — could be quickly solved by ending those exemptions.

As for the revenue aspect, a system of fines for people who choose to violate laws seems entirely appropriate to me and is common for all sorts of misdemeanors and petty crimes. These fines are used to discourage the undesired behavior and also to offset the costs of enforcement.

Parking tickets, library fines, public intox, fines for late taxes, OMVUI, animal control, ad nauseam. Does Larew object to any of these? He singles out traffic camera fines as some sort of bizarre aberration of public policy.

Now if the traffic cameras targeted some specific group — the poor, minorities, immigrants — we should certainly object to them. But cameras are probably as close to neutral enforcement as we can get.

Traffic cameras work. First, they reduce the time our highly paid police officers need to spend on traffic enforcement, freeing them up for more important work. By reducing speeding, they can help prevent accidents and lower all sorts of costs, including insurance, ambulances, personal injuries, lost job time, lawsuits, etc.

We know that traffic camera speed enforcement on the s-curve of I-380 in downtown Cedar Rapids has lowered the average speed of traffic, reduced accidents dramatically and virtually eliminated personal injury accidents.

Speed kills, and nowhere is that more evident than in collisions between motor vehicles and bicyclists/pedestrians. In Tom Vanderbilt’s must-read book, “Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)” he cites: “ ... a Florida study (found) that a pedestrian struck by a car moving 36 to 45 miles per hour was almost twice as likely to be killed than one struck by a car moving 31 to 35 miles per hour, and almost four times as likely as one struck by a car moving 26 to 30 miles per hour.” Reduced traffic speeds also help motorists because a safer trip means fewer fender-benders, cheaper insurance and fewer lawsuits. The only people who seem to benefit from poor traffic enforcement are auto repair shops and lawyers.

I’m struck by the selective antipathy some people have to changes in technology. We’ve happily allowed the Internet into our homes and schools despite the fact that it’s one-third spam, one-third pornography and an open conduit for thieves to get at our credit/bank accounts and medical records.

Some are content with the use of drones to smite our enemies abroad (and kill thousands of innocents in the “collateral damage”) but become apoplectic at the thought of the Iowa City police flying a drone over their neighborhood to find a missing child.

The driverless car will probably make the entire issue of traffic cameras irrelevant, but along the way to getting there, I’m sure we’ll hear plenty of voices arguing that such technology unfairly limits their “right” to run over pedestrians, bicyclists and their neighbor’s dog.

Jim Walters of Iowa City is a freelance writer on issues of the environment, education and social justice. Comments:

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