Editorial: Keep the cameras out


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Last week, the Iowa City City Council voted unanimously to approve the first reading of an ordinance that would restrict the use of many traffic-surveillance tools in Iowa City.

The ordinance in question, which must pass two more votes to take effect, would amend the City Code to restrict the use of traffic cameras and traffic-monitoring drones, automatic license-plate readers, and “other kinds of traffic-surveillance systems.” The ordinance would also repeal the 2012 Automated Traffic Enforcement ordinance that originally approved the use of traffic cameras in Iowa City.

The City Council’s action comes in response to a petition filed in the spring, ultimately signed by more than 4,000 Iowa City residents, calling for a city-wide ban on red-light cameras and unmanned surveillance drones. In response to the successful petition, the city had a choice to adopt the ordinance directly or to put the matter to a popular vote.

The Editorial Board commends the City Council for choosing the former option and taking direct action in response to a public outcry, despite its past support for traffic surveillance. It’s a testament to the responsiveness of our local officials, and it represents a rare opportunity to wind back ever-creeping government surveillance.

The council’s decision is especially timely considering the recent revelation that federal surveillance of average Americans is more expansive and more intractable than previously imagined. Today, it seems harder than ever to turn back the watchful eyes of the government.

The likely adoption of stronger restrictions on traffic surveillance thus represents a heartening, if small-scale, reminder that, at least on a very local level, we have a certain degree of control over our affairs and our privacy.

But the proposed restrictions on traffic surveillance may not be permanent. After two years, the City Council will be able to reconsider the adoption of traffic cameras and support for the new ordinance may be fleeting.

“I will support it, reluctantly,” City Councilor Terry Dickens said. “I’ll be the first one to bring back the red-light cameras as soon as we can.”

The City Council shouldn’t simply wait out the moratorium on traffic cameras required by the successful petition and take up the cause of red-light cameras again.

Instead, if the city’s leaders are intent on establishing traffic surveillance in Iowa City, they should wait until the technology develops to the point that these tools can do their job effectively and with minimal collateral damage.

We have made the case against red-light cameras on this page before. As it stands, red-light cameras are simply not effective enough to justify their implementation.

Essentially, the research on the effectiveness of red-light cameras is inconclusive. Some studies conclude that cameras do indeed reduce the risk of right-angle collisions in intersections, but other studies find that this reduction is offset by increase the incidence of rear-end collisions cause by traffic cameras.

Also concerning is the potential removal of human decision-making from law enforcement. Any acceptable system of traffic surveillance should allow for human discretion to be applied before camera-induced citations are issued.

Until the technology improves sufficiently to monitor traffic effectively and without eliminating the human element of law enforcement, the city should put its surveillance plans on hold.

We commend the City Council for listening to the people of Iowa City this time around. We challenge it to keep listening in the future.

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