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Traffic cameras focus of proposed DOT rule

Published: Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 11:21 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa transportation officials will take on the issue of automated traffic cameras next week with a proposed new set of rules designed to give them control over whether speed and red light cameras are placed on state highways and interstates they oversee.

Iowa is the only state in the nation that allows cameras to be permanently installed along interstate roads or highways managed by the state.

The Iowa Department of Transportation this week published new rules that would require cities and counties to provide proof that there’s a critical safety issue at a specific location before cameras would be allowed. The rules must go through a public hearing process and other steps before they’re finalized.

The first public hearing will be at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Iowa Capitol when the Administrative Rules Review Committee meets to discuss the proposal. The legislative committee is made up of five Republicans and five Democrats who provide legislative oversight on state agency rule making.

The DOT is accepting written comments and will hold a public meeting at 1 p.m. on Oct. 30 at Hampton Inn and Suites in Ankeny.

The earliest the rules could go into effect would be Feb. 12.

Nine Iowa cities as well as Polk County use automated cameras that ticket motorists who run red lights or exceed the speed limit.

The cities are Cedar Rapids, Clive, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Muscatine, Sioux City, and Windsor Heights.

Several of the cities have installed permanent cameras to ticket drivers on state-run highways or interstates and others use mobile cameras mounted in vehicles parked alongside state roads.

Des Moines uses them on Interstate 235, for example. Cedar Rapids has several cameras along Interstate 380. Sioux City tickets speeders on Interstate 29 and has red light cameras on U.S. Highway 75.

The state has no laws governing their use, leaving the decision to county supervisors and city councils to decide whether to install them. Camera critics claim their use has little to do with safety and is more about revenue.

Cedar Rapids is projected to generate about $4.6 million in revenue in the current year and Sioux City about $2.7 million. Des Moines gets more than $1 million a year.

Law enforcement officials defend their use, saying roads and intersections are safer when cameras are monitoring drivers and enforcing the law.

Iowa DOT officials said since they get no funding from them, their motivation is purely safety. They have concluded that automated cameras should be a last resort safety measure.

“There are lots of things we can do that we should try first and that’s really where the DOT is with these things,” said Steve Gent, director of the DOT’s office of traffic and safety. “It was no big deal eight years ago when the first one started because there were just a few in the state. But really what’s happened over the past few years is the number of them and the number of cities using them has exploded.”

He said the Legislature has been unable to pass laws regulating their use so the DOT decided it’s time to do something through the administrative rules process.

A leading opponent of the cameras in the Legislature said the DOT rules are a good first step but an outright ban remains his goal.

“I’m never going to give up my fight to completely ban these cameras,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, an Urbandale Republican. “I believe they’re abusing the constituents I represent.”

He’s been trying for seven years to get rid of them.

While there may be a few situations in which cameras improve safety, Zaun said they are largely about money. Zaun’s most recent attempt at a camera ban was defeated in April by Democrats who hold a slim majority in the Senate. Zaun said he has bills ready for the upcoming session starting in January.

Senate Democrats have opposed a ban mostly because they believe cities and counties should make their own decisions about the cameras.

“My caucus has always felt that it’s the city’s business and that the cities should be allowed to operate their own finances and their own business,” said Tom Courtney, a Burlington Democrat. “Cities are strapped for manpower often times and I think if they can use cameras and save some manpower and cut down on accidents then it’s a good thing.”

Courtney doesn’t see any fundamental change in the position of Senate Democrats in the upcoming session.

The DOT rules would require justification for cameras placed on state-run roads in annual reports that would detail crash types, causes, severity and traffic violations related to red light running or speeding. The cities or counties with cameras must also provide a list of possible countermeasures that could address the problems and document why cameras are the best solution.

The rules would regulate permanently installed cameras and mobile cameras mounted in vehicles parked along highways. They also would require signs to be posted in advance of camera locations to let drivers know they’re in use and regular calibration of camera equipment.

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