Davenport started Iowa's debate over using cameras to ticket vehicle owners for speeding and running red lights, so it's appropriate to look at one of its intersections as an illustration of the current situation - 11 years after the city began automated enforcement.
From 2001 to 2004 - before any traffic cameras were installed - Kimberly Road and Elmore Avenue averaged 7.0 red-light broadside crashes per year. From 2011 to 2014 - years when speed and red-light cameras were in operation - it averaged 1.0 red-light crash annually, a drop of 86 percent. The percentage decrease is slightly greater if one only considers red-light crashes in the directions of camera enforcement - east- and west-bound speed and red-light cameras.
From the city's perspective, this represents clear evidence that the traffic cameras have improved safety at the intersection.
Yet earlier this year, the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) ordered that the City of Davenport turn off traffic cameras at Kimberly and Elmore, which it did in April. While the city presented data on broadside crashes - those in which somebody running a red light was a direct cause of an accident - the state looked at all crashes within 150 feet of the intersection.
And here the picture becomes muddled. In three pre-camera years, total crashes averaged 10.3. The DOT evaluation found 15.5 total crashes per year after camera activation, including 23 in 2013.
Gary Statz, a traffic engineer with the City of Davenport, said those numbers aren't really in conflict: "In 2013, we had a spike in crashes out there, and I don't know why, but we just did. So the average of [total crashes] those two years was pretty high, and they came to the conclusion that the cameras weren't effective ... .
"My argument would be that most of the crashes had nothing to do with the cameras. The red-light crashes were almost nonexistent, but we had a lot of rear-end crashes that were well back from the intersection. Traffic backed up further than people thought, [and they] just weren't prepared to stop. That seemed to be most of them. ...
"I found the vast majority of the rear-end crashes occurred well back from the intersection" but within 150 feet of it. "We only found three [in 2013] ... that occurred during the yellow or at the beginning of the red. ... When it happens five seconds after it's red, and it's 10 car lengths back from the stop bar, you can safely say the camera had nothing to do with it."
Ultimately, though, the City of Davenport opted not to appeal the DOT's order at Kimberly and Elmore. "I didn't really agree with what they said," Statz said, "but we didn't argue it."
This anecdote highlights a few key elements of the present battle over Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE).
First, after a decade of being wholly unregulated, Automated Traffic Enforcement by cities in Iowa is now being monitored and regulated by the state DOT - which was done through administrative rules rather than legislation by the General Assembly. Cities were required to file annual reports on their use of ATE on the state and federal highway system beginning last year, and this year the state began ordering the removal of cameras in situations when safety had not measurably improved.
The Department of Transportation allowed roughly two-thirds of the evaluated camera sites to remain in operation, but Kimberly and Elmore was one it ordered removed.
Second, the state is looking at the safety question broadly, and the standard of proof is high for cities. Fundamentally, the process assumes that any indication of decreased safety will result in an order that cameras be removed - which jibes with the conclusion of some studies that traffic cameras can lead to more rear-end accidents.
As Steve J. Gent, director of traffic and safety for the Iowa Department of Transportation, said: "The concept is that when you install a safety countermeasure, you would expect [total] crashes to decrease."
So while the narrow view of broadside crashes at Kimberly and Elmore suggests that speed and red-light cameras were making that intersection safer, the increase in total crashes - no matter the cause - is in the state's view compelling evidence to the contrary.
But Davenport's acquiescence to the DOT mandate was rare. Sites in six Iowa cities were evaluated, and five of those municipalities appealed orders to remove cameras. Four appeals - from Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Muscatine, and Council Bluffs - were denied by the director of the DOT, while Sioux City's is now included in a 2014 lawsuit against the Department of Transportation.
So the issue is (once again) before the courts. Sioux City and other municipalities continue to fight for the right to milk vehicle owners however they desire - in the name of safety, of course.
The Silence of the Legislature
Welcome to the world of Automated Traffic Enforcement in Iowa, in which the citizens, state-level administrators, and municipalities fight in court over whether and how cameras can be used to hold vehicle owners responsible for traffic violations.
The battle over the past decade - as more cities have installed ATE cameras - has had two basic components.
The first - now largely settled in two cases by the Iowa Supreme Court - is whether municipalities may enforce traffic laws via cameras. They are permitted to.
The second - still very much contested - is whether the state Department of Transportation has the authority to regulate those cameras on state and federal highways.
In both cases, however, the heart of the issue is inaction by the Iowa legislature. Speed and red-light cameras remain such a contentious issue in part because the General Assembly has provided no direction to anybody. The legislature has passed no law explicitly permitting ATE, nor has it restricted ATE use.
The core problem with unregulated ATE from a public-relations and public-policy standpoint is fairly obvious. Automated Traffic Enforcement is a profit-driven enterprise that enriches private companies and local governments at the expense of vehicle owners - who, not at all trivially, might not have been driving a vehicle when it's caught speeding or running a red light. The system - in which local governments bear no cost for the equipment or the initial vetting of violations - is ripe for abuse. Whether ATE reduces traffic crashes (and injuries and deaths) or not, it prints money for the camera companies and cities.
Given the "free" money that ATE represents to local governments, it's a little shocking that it wasn't adopted more widely and aggressively. Some of that restraint might have been legal uncertainty that's now been erased, but surely a large part was the fear of voter backlash.
That's because there's something essentially slippery about ATE: Its tickets are issued for unsafe driving, yet the penalty is purely monetary. So while automated enforcement is touted as a safety measure, it lacks the teeth of police-officer-issued citations and looks suspiciously like an open cash-register drawer.
Cameras take pictures of vehicles committing violations, and tickets are sent to the owners based on the license plates. If a speeding or red-light ticket were issued by an officer in the field, that violation would appear on the driver's record; ATE violations do not. Violations in automated enforcement have the driving-record impact of a parking ticket (which is to say none at all) but much greater financial force. In Davenport, red-light ATE violations carry a $65 fine, while ATE speeding violations range from $65 (for 12 to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit) to $150 (for 40 miles per hour or more over the limit).
There's strong evidence that automated enforcement can reduce crashes caused by people running red lights - but the safety picture is more complicated than that. The 2012 report "Toolbox of Countermeasures to Reduce Red Light Running," produced by Iowa State University's Center for Transportation Research & Education, summarized: "Reductions in right-angle crashes have been found in many studies. In addition, multiple studies have found that, at camera-equipped intersections, total and rear-end crashes also decrease. ... [S]everal other studies have found that rear-end crashes have increased at intersections while right-angle crashes decreased."
Because of the lack of consensus on the overall safety impact of ATE, and because of the monetary incentive inherent in the way traffic cameras are administered, automated enforcement begs for regulation to ensure appropriate deployment.
So perhaps the most surprising development in the ATE debate is that the biggest ally taxpayers and drivers have is the Iowa Department of Transportation, which chose to provide oversight despite the legislative silence of elected representatives.
As the number of cameras in use in Iowa increased, Gent said, his department decided roughly three years ago that it needed to develop a regulation scheme for ATE. Rules took effect last year - although they're restricted to roads under the DOT's jurisdiction. "We need to at least put some sort of criteria, some sort of oversight, some sort of check and balance, on the primary highway system," he said of the rationale and limited oversight. "Because that's the only thing the DOT is responsible for. That's the interstates, the U.S. routes, and the Iowa routes. Cities and counties can do whatever they want on all their own streets. They can have cameras on every flippin' block. ... They can do whatever they want."
But on state and federal highways, Gent said, it's critical for an entity outside of the cities themselves - one without any financial stake in ATE - to provide some analysis.
"These things needs to be evaluated by somebody independent ... on an annual basis," Gent said. "Cameras may be a solution, but they're not the first solution you try. They're very expensive from a societal perspective, and they're very controversial. We, as a government, try to solve problems in the most simple and non-intrusive way that we can. ... Government is really supposed to fix problems in the most cost-effective and efficient way."
He used the example of an intersection with 10 crashes a year. "I can go out there and spend $10,000 and reduce it to five" by implementing some countermeasure, he said. "Or the city can come in and put a camera in and collect $100,000 a year for the next 20 years and reduce it to five. Which is a better use of everybody's money? Now that's a question government should be asking. ... If it's really about safety, let's solve it with the most cost-effective way."
Gent pointed to the "Toolbox of Countermeasures to Reduce Red Light Running" report, which includes 20 options - of which ATE is but one.
The companies that provide ATE systems, however, have made it attractive for cities to opt for traffic cameras without considering alternatives. "They come in with one motive - to make money," Gent said. "They'll talk about safety. But anybody who really deals with safety comes up with a list of safety countermeasures. They come in with one safety countermeasure."
And then cities become reliant on the revenue from ATE, which makes them resistant to regulation that would cut into their budgets. The DOT's rules say that Automated Traffic Enforcement should be a short-term remedy for high-crash areas, but municipal appeals and lawsuits suggest that local governments value more cash as much as fewer crashes.
Many facets of this heated issue were neatly articulated in a 2008 Iowa Supreme Court decision - the court's first sanctioning of the use of ATE by cities: "Supporters of ATE ordinances may passionately assert that the presence of the cameras and speed sensors promote public safety and save lives, especially the lives of children, when careless driving and road rage are all too common. In contrast, opponents may view ATE ordinances as unduly intrusive, unfair, and simply amounting to sophisticated speed traps designed to raise funds for cash-strapped municipalities by ensnaring unsuspecting car owners in a municipal bureaucracy under circumstances where most busy people find it preferable to shut up and pay rather than scream and fight."
Yet the court, in that case and a 2015 decision on ATE, answered only narrow legal questions and has not addressed those larger public-public arguments. The 2008 decision noted: "As we have previously stated, 'In construing statutes it is our duty to determine legislative intent; the wisdom of the legislation is not our concern.'"
With ATE, however, there is literally no legislation whose wisdom or lack thereof the courts may ignore.
The Cost of Cameras
Gent's use of the term "expensive" is important, because of course these enforcement cameras aren't expensive to cities; they're expensive to vehicle owners.
According to Finance Director Brandon Wright, ATE in Davenport generated more than $4.9 million in revenue in fiscal years 2012 through 2014 - more than $1.9 million of which went to camera vendor Redflex and nearly $3.0 million of which went to the city. That revenue-sharing is the price cities pay in lieu of bearing the cost of ATE systems up-front. (The 60/40 city/vendor split is typical.) ATE funds are required to be used for public-safety purposes, Wright wrote in an e-mail.
The number of ATE citations in Davenport, according to city budget documents, totaled nearly 104,969 from 2012 through 2014. By comparison, the number of traffic citations issued by Davenport police officers during that three-year period was 47,310 - meaning that the city issued more than 2.2 ATE tickets for every officer-given traffic citation.
With the cameras at Kimberly and Elmore removed, Davenport now has four intersections with red-light and speed cameras, and four sites with stand-alone speed cameras. Three of those intersection sites are on state-regulated roads, as are two of the speed-camera sites.
Beyond crashes, one way to measure the safety impact of traffic cameras is the number of violations. In theory, effective automated enforcement should change driver behavior over time, resulting in a gradual decrease in citations.
While construction and traffic patterns can affect the numbers, Davenport's citations appear to be dropping long-term - at least on state-regulated roads. According to the city's most-recent report to the DOT, Automated Traffic Enforcement citations in 2014 were more than 10 percent lower than in 2011.
It should be noted, however, that citations were nearly 5 percent higher in 2014 than in 2013 on state-regulated roads, and overall ATE citations in Davenport were up almost 18 percent from 2013 to 2014. Those numbers bear watching moving forward, as stable or rising citations would suggest that ATE isn't having the desired impact on driving habits.
Another concerning aspect of Davenport's use of ATE is the breakdown of citations by type. On roads regulated by the DOT, 37,545 citations were issued from 2011 through 2014 for running red lights, while 77,693 were issued for speeding violations. (Given the disparity between the numbers of speeding and red-light citations, and the fact that the red-light fine is the same as the lowest speeding fine, well over two-thirds of city ATE revenue comes from speeding violations.)
Gent said that research is strong that red-light cameras, when deployed in the right situations, "can be effective" in reducing crashes. "There is not that same research on speed cameras."
In other words, a reasonable person could say that Davenport and other cities in Iowa have collected millions of dollars in speeding fines from an enforcement mechanism whose effectiveness in improving safety is less than certain.
The distinction between the safety impact of speed and red-light cameras can be found in the different ways some states treat them. Illinois, for instance, allows red-light cameras by local ordinance, but speed cameras are prohibited except in construction zones or toll roads. Similarly, Maryland permits red-light cameras but largely restricts speed cameras to school and construction zones. New York limits speed cameras to school zones but allows red-light cameras. Speed cameras in Oregon may be used no more than four hours per day per location, while red-light cameras face no time constraints.
And other states have little use for ATE at all. Ohio requires an officer to be present for an ATE citation, for instance. Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin have prohibited both types of ATE. (All this information comes from the Governors Highway Safety Association.)
Gent said Iowa is among the most ATE-permissive states in the country, requiring only a majority vote of the city council or county board: "That's all it takes. A camera company can come in, and will come in, for free, and evaluate your system, and put cameras in for free, and then just start issuing tickets." He added that Iowa is the only state with ATE on interstates.
But Automated Traffic Enforcement has nonetheless been - and continues to be - a contested issue in the courts.
The Justices Speak
The Iowa Supreme Court decided in 2008 that Davenport's automated traffic enforcement was not a violation of state law. In plain English, the absence of any direct reference to ATE in state law means that cities and counties may deploy it as they please.
Specifically, the court ruled that "the Davenport ATE ordinance simply cannot be said to authorize what the legislature has expressly prohibited, or to prohibit what the legislature has authorized. ...
"[T]he legislature has expressly authorized local governments to establish rules of conduct related to rules of the road. The legislature used no words of limitation in the section. ... [T]he silence of the legislature is not prohibitory but permissive."
But that 2008 decision explicitly left open other avenues of challenge, particularly due-process questions.
This year, though, the court addressed that issue, ruling that Sioux City's ATE was not a violation of due process or the Iowa Constitution's "inalienable rights" clause.
The court ruled that Michael Jon Jacobsma, who sued Sioux City, had a property interest, but it was trumped by the municipality's interest in public safety. The decision said he had no "liberty interest" - which would have triggered a higher standard for government to meet had it been present.
"Jacobsma does not appear to have a conventional liberty interest," the court ruled. "He can drive his car anywhere he wants, subject to the laws of the road. He can loan his car to anyone he wants. His right to self-fulfillment or his right to be left alone do not seem implicated by the Sioux City ATE ordinance in any meaningful sense.
"Jacobsma is, however, certainly subject to being fined for traffic violations under Sioux City's ATE system. While Jacobsma may not have a liberty interest, he certainly has a property interest in not being subject to irrational monetary fines rather than a liberty interest impairing some right of self-fulfillment."
However, the court concluded: "We think there is no doubt that the regulation to control speeding on state highways [within a city's jurisdiction] gives rise to a public interest generally. Despite the best efforts of many dedicated professionals in our departments of transportation and law enforcement, traffic accidents give rise to a terrible toll of fatal and nonfatal injuries. We are not regulating conduct that is purely or even largely private. The conduct at issue presents an increased risk to public safety on the open roads of the City."
At this point, then, absent some direction from the legislature, municipal speed and red-light cameras are permitted according to the Iowa Supreme Court. The only question the justices left unanswered in this year's case was "how a defendant may rebut a city's case and whether the ordinance comports with due process when faced with evidence that someone other than the registered owner was operating the vehicle at the time of the infraction."
So the legal issue has shifted significantly. Now municipalities are questioning in court the state Department of Transportation's authority to regulate ATE.
Why Reasonable Might Not Be Good Enough
The rules the DOT adopted, which went into effect in February 2014, outline some basic principles for the proper use of ATE on Iowa highways:
· "Automated enforcement shall only be considered after other engineering and enforcement solutions have been explored and implemented."
· "An automated traffic enforcement system should not be used as a long-term solution for speeding or red-light running."
· "Automated enforcement should only be considered in extremely limited situations on interstate roads because they are the safest class of any roadway in the state and they typically carry a significant amount of non-familiar motorists."
· "Automated enforcement shall only be considered in areas with a documented high-crash or high-risk location ... ."
As an example of how cities should approach problem areas, consider how Davenport looked at the NorthPark Mall entrance at Kimberly Road and Main Street. Statz said the city opted not to use a red-light camera there because it discovered that "the [signal] timing was poor. We didn't have one second of all red before it went to the next phase, which is what we use for safety at every intersection in the city. We were having a lot more crashes than we should." So the city simply added that extra second of red.
On the other side of things, Cedar Rapids' use of speed cameras on Interstate 380 was problematic for the DOT. Two sets of cameras were within 1,000 feet of a speed-limit change - a violation of the administrative rules - and were therefore ordered to be moved. The idea is that speed cameras shouldn't be speed traps.
And two other sets of cameras were past a dangerous "S" curve and were ordered to be turned off. The DOT noted that these cameras were "beyond ... the area of concern," and it also cited the rules' preference for limited use on interstates. That latter principle, like the 1,000-foot rule, aims to prevent the use of ATE as a gotcha! revenue stream.
At Kimberly and Elmore in Davenport and on I-380 in Cedar Rapids, one can see how the rules have been applied to protect drivers. The bar is high to demonstrate improved safety, and cities must deploy cameras judiciously based on some common-sense risk and fairness standards.
Yet even though these rules seem reasonable - and even though the DOT this year ordered less than one-third of cameras turned off - cities have disputed the DOT's authority. And "reasonable" rules might not be good enough for the courts.
The 2014 lawsuit by Sioux City has provided a language/argument template for other municipalities that have challenged the DOT's camera-removal orders. The suit raises some procedural issues about the how the DOT did its administrative rule-making, but more fundamentally it hit on three related points:
· "The Rules adopted by the Department of Transportation clearly violate Iowa Code §306.4(4) whereupon the legislature directed that both the City and the Department shall exercise concurrent jurisdiction over the primary roads within the municipality."
· "Iowa Code does not grant the Department of Transportation the discretion to dictate the method or means in which the municipality or its police officers enforce the laws upon the primary roads within the municipality."
· And most crucially: "The Iowa Legislature has yet to enact any legislation governing the use of ATEs. The Rules circumvent this legislative process by allowing the Department of Transportation to unlawfully legislate from the Administrative Branch of Iowa Government."
The DOT's Gent noted that the administrative-rules process does involve the General Assembly, specifically the Administrative Rules Review Committee of 10 legislators. That group, he said, had the opportunity to kill the DOT's rules, or delay them until the legislature had an opportunity to write a law.
"The biggest thing they're supposed to do is ensure the state agency doesn't step beyond their legal right ... ," Gent said.
The Hard Work Is Already Done
Regardless of whether the cities' arguments find traction in the courts, the claim that the DOT crafted its rules absent direction from the legislature has resonance. The Department of Transportation wasn't filling in the blanks from a general directive from lawmakers; it wrote administrative code from scratch.
And it did so understandably. ATE is too controversial and problematic to leave to the cities themselves. People hate getting tickets in the mail for violations they don't remember and therefore cannot really contest - even though appeals procedures are in place. The person cited might not have been the person driving, with the violator perhaps a child or spouse - although ATE systems believe this is irrelevant. The arrangements between camera companies and local governments create a clear financial incentive to implement, retain, and expand ATE independent of its safety impact.
People should drive safely and obey reasonable traffic laws that protect the health and lives of other people on the road, but they shouldn't lose millions of dollars to local governments and private companies in the absence of clear, indisputable evidence that automated enforcement makes specific intersections or stretches of pavement safer.
But while the DOT's rules address those issues, they will likely be tied up in court for years.
And even if those rules ultimately stand, the department's authority over only state and federal highways means that there's a giant hole that you can drive a truck through - literally every other city or county road.
It is, to put it bluntly, cowardly and wrong for the General Assembly to let limited- and disputed-jurisdiction administrative rules substitute for hard choices on state policy, and to let the courts decide this important topic that affects citizens' pocketbooks, cities' coffers, and most importantly the public's safety.
The legislature can of course give cities free rein, or it can prohibit all ATE - both of which are less than ideal given what we know about the pros and cons of traffic cameras.
Outlawing or greatly restricting speed cameras would make sense given that their impact on safety is questionable.
But the easiest route would be adopting through legislative action the DOT's rules for state and federal highways and creating similar standards and oversight for local roads. Despite cities' claims, the administrative code developed by the department is both rigorous and fair with an eye toward improved safety - with important safeguards to protect drivers from the abuse of ATE.
The status quo in untenable, as the lawsuits against the DOT abundantly show. Clear and decisive action from the General Assembly would provide needed clarity and direction, and the Department of Transportation has already done much of the hard work.