Lawmakers should leave traffic cameras alone

There was a sobering news report a few weeks ago that did not get the attention it deserved here in Iowa.

That’s unfortunate, because the report should put to rest once and for all the shortsighted attempts by some members of the Iowa Senate to interfere with public safety.

Here was the news:

A new study by the American Automobile Association found that traffic deaths at red lights have increased nationally by 28 percent since 2012.

“The problem is drivers are distracted,” AAA spokesman Doug Shupe told CBS News. “They’re impatient and they’re reckless.”

While the number of deaths has increased at all intersections, the AAA study found that fatal crashes at intersections with red light cameras have dropped by 14 percent. The number of motorists running red lights has declined by 21 percent at those intersections with cameras.

That’s the positive news.

Here is the negative news: In spite of the cameras’ success as a traffic safety and enforcement tool, cities are reluctant to install the cameras because of the criticism the devices generate. Some citizens and politicians disparage the cameras as a way of “policing for profit.”

One critic in Texas told CBS, “I call it government sanctioned extortion.”

You hear similar comments in the Iowa Legislature each year when bills are introduced that would either ban the red light and speed cameras or that would force local governments to turn over to the state a large chunk of the fine money the cameras generate.

There are two main complaints about the cameras – the involvement of private businesses in their operation and the fact that tickets coming from the cameras go to the owners of the vehicles, not to the people who were driving.

A handful of vendors nationally have marketed to police departments the technology to record photos of the license plates of vehicles running red lights or speeding. The cities decide where the cameras will be installed. They set the fines ($75 is common in Iowa), and they decide how much leeway speeders will be given before tickets are issued.

One detail that irks some people is the fact that the vendors receive a portion of the money collected from the cameras’ tickets. The companies that operated traffic cameras in nine Iowa cities in 2017 and 2018 received about $5.9 million.

The automated traffic cameras enforce the red light or speeding laws 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Few police departments these days have enough officers to allocate to that level of 24/7 traffic enforcement.

There’s another indisputable fact that rarely comes up during debate at the Iowa Capitol: No tickets would be issued if drivers obeyed the red-light laws and stayed within the speed limit.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety told CBS that the cameras – and the tickets they generate – do tend to change driver behavior.

New York City has several thousand automated cameras. It has found that 80 percent of the people who get a ticket from the speed cameras never get another one.

The cameras have cut the number of speeders by 60 percent and have reduced crashes at intersections with the automated cameras by 15 percent.

Those details don’t register with Iowa critics of the automated cameras, however. And inexplicably, those critics have included the Iowa Department of Transportation, which says the cameras should not be a long-term traffic enforcement tool.

It’s inexplicable, because the cameras are a much safer way to enforce the laws than having police officers stopping motorists along busy streets to write tickets.

The Iowa Senate, where Republicans hold a majority of the seats, voted earlier this year to ban automated traffic enforcement cameras in Iowa. The Senate passed a similar bill in 2018.

Neither bill has made it through the Iowa House, however.

Senator Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel, told the Des Moines Register earlier this year, “I think the Senate’s very clear on where we stand on this issue. The Senate wants to see these removed.”

But Senator Claire Celsi, a West Des Moines Democrat and a recipient of a speeding ticket from one of the automated cameras, said the use of the cameras allows police departments to deploy their officers to handle more pressing matters.

No one is mounting an effort in the Legislature to force the Iowa State Patrol to stop using its airplanes to catch speeders or to prevent state troopers from parking in the median of Interstate Highway 80 to nab lead-footed drivers.

It makes no sense, therefore, to give automatic traffic enforcement cameras the stink eye, especially when national studies show that the tickets are changing the unsafe behavior of motorists.

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Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and retired opinion editor at the Des Moines Register. He is a native of Bloomfield, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He can be reached at

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