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Red Light Cameras

2009-01-17

Category: politics

In general, Cedar Rapids Iowa is one of the safest American cities in which to drive. We have fairly low accident rates and even our most congested traffic isn't too bad. Still, there are problems. Accelerating toward yellow lights is one of the biggest.

The rule is that if the traffic light is yellow, you can still go through it, if it is safe to do so. However, the yellow light is just a warning that the light is about to turn red and red means stop. To try to make it through while the light is still yellow, too many immature drivers will accelerate toward the intersection. (The word "immature" in this case refers to the mental development and sense of responsibility rather than chronological age.) When the light turns red, they cannot possibly stop at those speeds, so they go through. This endangers everyone else at the intersection.

On Tuesday, January 14, the Cedar Rapids Police Department (CRPD) held a forum at Harding Junior High School to explain their plans for Red Light Cameras. These cameras are devices attached to traffic lights to catch motorists who drive through the red lights. Because I am a huge fan of these projects, I went to the forum.

As suspected, a large number of conspiracy nuts, who were convinced that these are a bad idea, showed up to be heard. They cited many presumed problems with the systems. The CRPD, with help from the Traffic Engineering folks, answered extremely well.

Top on the list was the idea that revenue for the city was a motivator for setting up the cameras. The officers explained that the prime motivator for the project is to cut down on side-angle collisions at intersections. (A side-angle collision is when one vehicle drives forward into the side of another vehicle, often referred to as being "T-boned". These sorts of collisions are more likely to cause severe bodily harm than most other types of collisions.) The officers added that any revenue from the project is mandated to go back into traffic engineering, enforcement, and driver education.

Some were concerned that the companies providing the cameras may have an interest to increase revenue by claiming infractions where there was none. The officers explained that the provider sends all alleged infraction images and video back to the CRPD. An officer at CRPD revues the video and decides whether the driver broke the law based on the evidence. Only when CRPD has decided that there was a violation will a ticket be issued.

Even then, the person receiving the ticket can go to the police station and speak with an arbitrator to plead that there may have been extenuating circumstances. Unless CRPD is confident that it can argue that the extenuating circumstances can be disproven, they will cancel the citation. The goal, after all, is to improve safety.

My own opinion on the revenue, as I expressed to the officers, is that they can take the revenue and throw it on a bonfire, as far as I was concerned. My main interest in the cameras is that I be able to go through a green light without having to stop and wait for illegal cross traffic to go by. I also suggested that we could remove the revenue question by making the penalty public caning.

Another issue of concern was that in some states where the red light cameras were used, side-angle collisions dropped, but rear-end collisions increased. The officers pointed out that this is not caused by the red light cameras themselves but simply by having drivers follow too closely to the car ahead of them and being unable to stop at the stop light. They also pointed out that rear-end collision are much less likely to result in serious injury or death than a side-angle collision. I know my personal preference.

The next group of concerns has to do with "Big Brother". The complainants asked what would keep the police from abusing the system or using the cameras for other purposes. They asked if this was the start of slippery slope to a London-like array of cameras everywhere. Again, CRPD handled this masterfully.

As for the London-like camera program, that would cost money and we don't have it in our budget. What's more, we don't really have enough crime in Cedar Rapids to justify that sort of activity. Finally, no one here is really all that interested in what others are doing in general, so who would want to occupy themselves with watching.

The second part of that, the subject of police abuse of the system, was even better handled. The police chief pointed out that you can either trust your police department or you can't and the kind of technology they have won't change that. This is Cedar Rapids Iowa, so it's about as good as it's going to get trust-wise.

One other concern came from a real life scenario. Several news stories in the past few months tell about people putting fake license plates on their car so the vehicle appeared to be someone else's. These individuals intentionally run through red light camera intersections illegally in order to get a citation for the other person. CRPD pointed out that covering your own license plate is a felony in Iowa and they would be vigorously hunting these people down. The perpetrators would not only be charged with the fake license plate thing, but also for the traffic violations, and harassing the victim at the very least. It wouldn't take long to make an example of these people. This is good because I would really rather not risk being crashed into by some moron who is intentionally running red lights.

Life in Cedar Rapids is pretty good. We have low crime rates, safe roads, and a pretty good economy. Our police department is known to maintain Iowan pragmatism and morals. As Chicagoan driving habits try to infiltrate our city, I'm glad that our officers have taken the time to implement a plan to keep us safe. It would still be good to have the public canings.


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