Posted Online: Jan. 02, 2013, 12:05 pm

Iowa officials seek clear policy for traffic cameras

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Gov. Terry Branstad and the head of the state Department of Transportation are urging caution in the use of traffic cameras, saying they are concerned that growing use has been driven more by the money generated from fines than public safety.

Branstad and Department of Transportation Director Paul Trombino III recently told The Gazette in Cedar Rapids that cameras designed to catch speeding motorists should be used only after other engineering and enforcement solutions have been tried.

'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,' Branstad said. '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.'

The cameras typically are mounted at intersections where many motorists run red lights or on sections of highway where speeding is a problem. These locations are often state highways where traffic laws are enforced by local police. The cameras automatically take a picture of the vehicle's license plate and mail a ticket to the registered owner.

Trombino this summer directed the DOT to develop guidelines for automated camera enforcement on Iowa's highways, viewing the devices as a way to enhance safety but only after other means have been tried.

The guidelines say automated enforcement 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,' the guidelines say.

Trombino said the state is requiring cities seeking cameras on state highways to submit a justification report with supporting evidence for why the system is needed. Each city or county with active cameras must evaluate their effectiveness and submit an annual report to the DOT. The agency will evaluate whether use should be continued.

'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 deal with a driver directly.

'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.'

The policy has created conflict between cities and the state.

Officials in the Des Moines suburb of Windsor Heights had planned to install cameras above the westbound lanes of Interstate 235, but DOT officials denied the request in August. It was the first such denial, and city has filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse the decision.

The issue of banning the cameras or establishing uniform fines and rules for operation has come before the Iowa Legislature in previous sessions, but no consensus was reached. It is likely to surface again this year.

Nine Iowa cities use cameras for red light or speeding enforcement, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit organization supported by the insurance industry which researches crashes.

Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines and Sioux City use cameras for both.

Clive, Council Bluffs, and Muscatine use them for red lights only, while Fort Dodge and Windsor Heights use them only for speeding enforcement.

Some cities including Des Moines and Davenport bring in more than $1 million a year from camera fines.

Cedar Rapids, with 11 permanently mounted cameras at intersections and a mobile unit that catches speeders, pulls in net revenue of more than $4 million a year.