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Are red-light cameras in Iowa City a good idea?

BY DI EDITORIAL STAFF | JANUARY 20, 2012 7:20 AM

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No

Iowa City officials ought to take another look at the possible Constitutional consequences and safety violations of the installation of red-light cameras at city intersections. Despite their good intentions, there is a wealth of dissenting evidence that must be taken into account.

It is true that the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in City of Davenport v. Seymour that there should be no expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment while driving on public roads. This essentially made these cameras legal, because there is no state law that neither confirms nor denies their legality.

What the court case does not address is the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which, among other things, gives people the right to face their accuser in a court of law.

John Bowman, the communications director of the National Motorists Association, agrees that this is a significant problem.

"A piece of machinery cannot testify in court as to what you did or did not do," he said.

This reveals a flaw in how violators are ticketed: When a driver runs a red light, the camera will take a photo of the license plate and send a ticket to the title owner of that vehicle. The fault lies in that the title owner may not necessarily be the one driving the car.

This could lead to false ticketing and a slew of lawsuits that could cost the city massive amounts of money in legal fees that would far outweigh the cost of sending police officers to heavily violated intersections.

"You will also find that accident rates have gone up at intersections in which cameras have been installed," Bowman said.

Red-light cameras were installed at various intersections in Washington, D.C., in 1999. The Washington Post reported in 2005 that from 1998 to 2004, overall accidents went up by 107 percent, with fatalities jumping 81 percent. Fort Collins, Colo., has seen similar results. Between 1998 and 2004, crashes involving injuries or fatalities increased 81 percent at red-light camera intersections, while only a 54 percent increase occurred at intersections without the cameras.

Bowman maintains that there are alternatives to red light cameras that are safe and legal. "There are ways to control traffic and increase safety at intersections without having to use the [red-light] cameras altogether … The primary one is increasing yellow-light times by a second," he said. This is just one of the many alternatives proposed and proven by civil engineers.

A fundamental truth behind traffic safety is that drivers must employ personal responsibility by paying attention to their surroundings and avoiding being under the influence while behind the wheel.

City officials must consider these facts before making a hasty decision that could put lives and liberty at stake.

— Joe Schueller

Yes

Controversial though it may be, I would like to applaud the recent 4-3 decision by the City Council to introduce traffic cameras to a select number of accident-prone intersections in Iowa City. Not because I think that it will bring an end to all traffic accidents but because it is a practical cost-saving measure that promises benefits that far outweigh any foreseeable costs.

First and foremost, let me dispel the illusion that traffic cameras are an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court opined in United States v. Knotts that "a person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another."

Second, the cameras will save the Iowa City police countless man-hours that would otherwise be wasted observing benign activity. Many people argue that traffic cameras are superfluous because they mostly observe benign activity. This, counter to the contention of the critics, is a reason for introducing traffic cameras. With cameras in place, Iowa City police personal will be freed up to respond to emergencies.

Speaking of eliminating waste, if we all agree that resources spent observing benign activity are resources wasted, then we should all be in favor of using traffic cameras. Whether we use cameras or police personal, these intersections need to be patrolled. And unlike the latter, cameras operate at a rather low fixed cost — promising to save the city money in the long run.

Third, traffic cameras will result in the more consistent and equal enforcement of the law. And there is good evidence that when the risk of getting caught is high, noncompliance with the law goes down. Moreover, if the risk of getting caught serves as the primary deterrent for breaking the law, it eliminates the need for excessive punishments (monetary or otherwise) to deter criminal activity, a point made quite succinctly by the National Bureau of Economic Research in its 1999 paper "The Economic Theory of Public Enforcement of Law."

Traffic cameras save police resources, save city dollars, and result in the consistent administering of the law. Traffic cameras are neither unconstitutional nor some slippery slope leading us toward an Orwellian police state. They are instruments for eliminating inefficiencies and inconstancies in law enforcement, and that is why we should all welcome the City Council's recent decision as a prime example of good governance.

— Daniel Taibleson


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