Traffic Cameras, Politics, And Civil Liberties

Rod Sullivan, Johnson County Supervisor

[by Rod Sullivan]

[Reprinted with permission from Rod Sullivan’s weekly newsletter, Sullivan’s Salvos.   Sullivan is a thoughtful, outspoken, progressive Democrat who can be counted on to let everyone know exactly where he stands and to not go along with the usual  groupthink.   You may not always agree with him, but he tends to do  his homework on the issues.  Last week Governor Branstad (sensing a political wedge issue in the making we suspect) said he would go along with a statewide ban on traffic cameras, so it seemed like a good idea to present  another viewpoint to add to the conversation, along with some statistical information  from someone who has actually looked into the matter.]


I recently asked my fellow Board members if there was any interest in a discussion of traffic cameras. There was none.

This is unfortunate on a couple of levels: first, just about anything deserves at least a short public discussion, particularly when one Board member requests it. Secondly, I think this should be discussed because traffic cameras used correctly are proving to be a great tool for public safety.

Let me be clear; I am referring to speed cameras. There are also red light cameras, and while very similar, the justifications are somewhat different. For the purposes of this discussion, I am referring to speed cameras.

It actually pisses me off when I hear some elected officials say that this raises civil liberties concerns for them. There are about three elected officials in Johnson County who are legit when they say this. The rest are full of it.

I would love to see elected officials who REALLY cared about civil liberties. If more really cared about civil liberties, there would be many more tough votes taken. REALLY care about civil liberties? Take a look at our disproportionate minority contact numbers. They are abysmal. But the “civil liberties” champions who criticize cameras won’t touch a REAL civil liberties issue with a ten-foot pole.

Opposition to cameras is mainly pandering. The public gets upset about them, so the politicians automatically cave. But that we actually had a roster full of elected officials who cared about civil liberties!

I am literally a card-carrying member of the ACLU. I fully understand the civil liberties concerns to which cameras give rise. And I think there are some precautions that can be taken to protect our privacy. I will get to those later. First, here is why we need traffic cameras:

1. Cameras reduce speed-related accidents. This has been statistically proven. A federal study found a small but measurable reduction in injuries nationwide in accidents in areas monitored by cameras. Local studies nationwide show largely similar data. Crashes on 380 in CR are down 76%! Fatal crashes on 380 are down 80%!

(There is some data that shows a slight increase in rear end collisions at red light cameras –though the same studies demonstrate a reduction in more serious “t-bone” collisions at the same intersections. But that is for our cities to figure out. I am not talking about cameras at intersections – I’m talking speed cameras.)

2. Cameras raise revenues. I hear opponents say, “this isn’t about safety – it is about money.” First, safety statistics prove that statement untrue. But just for kicks, let’s pretend it is true. The cameras are only to raise money. Why is that bad thing? Money raised from cameras is money that property tax payers do not need to pay. I would suggest using any revenues 50% for additional patrol deputies, 50% for offsetting the use of property taxes in public safety.

Is there a need? Have you driven I-380 between Iowa City and CR? I have a bit of a lead foot; I’ll set my cruise at 75 in the 70mph zone. Cars pass me as though I were standing still. In a single commute you will witness a half dozen risky behaviors.

3. The only people who pay are people whose vehicles broke the law. No one is forced to pay these fines. Don’t break the law, and you don’t pay. (In CR, no drivers were ticketed unless they were at least 10mph over the limit.)

Cameras are in use just to our north in Cedar Rapids. The cameras added up to big money and significantly fewer crashes, according to police statistics. Through 11 months, the city has made $2.3 million from the camera system, according to data from camera vendor Gatso USA.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Greg Graham said crashes citywide dropped by 8 percent from 2009 to 2010, and injury crashes fell 16 percent. Instead of working crashes, officers went to neighborhoods. Graham said the extra officers in neighborhoods helped reduce violent crime by 2 percent and property crime by 12 percent last year.

That backs up my own experience. I travel to CR fairly frequently, and since the advent of traffic cameras, my behavior has changed dramatically. I drive MUCH slower through CR!

Those results are REAL. And they happened just 25 miles north of us! They occurred on the same stretch of road (I-380) for which I would recommend cameras.

As mentioned earlier, there are several things that can be done to mitigate civil liberties concerns.

First, violations must be treated as civil infractions rather than moving violations. That means fines are similar to parking tickets, and do not impact the vehicle owner’s driving record. This is important, because the owner of the car was not necessarily the driver when the infraction occurred. This also protects the privacy of the drivers, because there is no need to use cameras to attempt to determine who was driving. The camera is focused on the plate, not the driver.

Secondly, there must be a strict plan for the data. Files must be deleted frequently, and data must be strictly protected. The data must remain the property of the municipality and not the vendor. Neither Cedar Rapids nor Des Moines has experienced any problems with this. I would encourage civil libertarians be actively involved in the writing of whatever contract is created with the company that maintains the data.

Finally, there must be an easy appeals process. This has been achieved in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.

Now Governor Branstad is getting into the act. He says he will sign a bill banning traffic cameras; according to Branstad, the cameras are “unfair”. How ridiculous! The cameras are EXACTLY the opposite – they are the MOST fair way to determine who broke the law! No giving breaks, no racial profiling, no room for human error. (And this is one more way for Branstad to take power away from local governments.)

Traffic cameras make sense. They prevent accidents, raise revenues, and create a safer environment. I think this AT LEAST deserves a discussion. What do you think?

*Government Does It Better!
So – who handles elections better? Elected County Auditors (the government) or local volunteers (the Iowa GOP Caucuses)? Chalk up another one for government!

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