Evanson: The great traffic camera money trap


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When driving through nearby Cedar Rapids, numerous signs with black, bold writing underneath speed limit signs read: “PHOTO ENFORCED.” If you happen to drive 11 mph over the speed limit by the traffic cameras in place there, the owner of the vehicle, regardless of who was driving it, will receive a citation in the mail.

It ensnares people to pay fines even if they weren’t the ones responsible. If the ticket isn’t paid within the mandated time, licenses may even be suspended, leaving those who commute to work or school without a way to get there. Add increased insurance rates resulting from fines to the mix and you have an incredible headache from pushing down on the gas just a little too far.

Two women, Sarah Brooks and Michelle Bullock, who were issued a ticket in Des Moines, have challenged this status quo of traffic cameras and have taken it upon themselves to sue the city of Des Moines and even Gatso USA, the manufacturer of the traffic cameras. To that, I say, thank you.

The argument in their lawsuit includes that traffic cameras violate the right to travel guaranteed by both U.S. and Iowa Constitutions. Also in question is the effectiveness of the cameras to do what they were in place to do: reduce traffic accidents. The Iowa DOT itself debated internally whether cameras have an effect on accidents decreasing. Some have asked for the removal of a traffic camera in a Council Bluff location because there has not been statistical evidence of a decrease in accidents.

To throw in another dagger in the legal argument against Des Moines and the traffic company, who is to say how accurate these cameras are in determining actual speeds? Sure, they might accurately get within 1 or 2 mph, but that could be the difference between whether or not you get a $150 ticket in the mail for going 71 MPH instead of 70 MPH in a 60 zone.

The Iowa Department of Transportation released a report last week that showed that 10 of 34 traffic cameras in Iowa did not reduce traffic accidents. The Interstate Highway 235 where the two women received the citation that prompted the lawsuit was among those 10 inefficient cameras, making their case all the more stronger and relevant.

Reducing accidents is the ultimate goal, right? The traffic cameras are supposed to provide increased safety to the public good rather than be detriment to society by imposing superfluous fines on drivers. Many use the “Big Brother” explanation that government isn’t interested in driver safety as much as it is with intruding on our lives and regulating citizen behavior to government standards. I don’t believe that government entities are that interested in our lives on a micro-level, but I do believe that the traffic cameras are rooted in monetary pursuits.

More than 43,000 tickets were issued in Des Moines last year alone from traffic cameras, generating more than $1.2 million for the city to use. I don’t believe it’s an evil tactic that many believe is rooted in corruption; it’s merely the way local governments have decided to pad budgets. But, there are other ways to generate revenue for local governments. There are more ways to raise revenue than to unfairly place costs on citizens that are much greater than the benefits obtained. It’s intrusive in a way that undermines the rights of citizens to travel by raising costs unfairly. Where other states have toll roads that are a small and simple tax to generate revenue, Iowa implements a system that preys on unsuspecting drivers and puts a high price tag on their behalf, monetarily and legally.

I hope that Brooks’ and Bullock’s lawsuit is successful. Unless the status quo is challenged, it will always be in place, regardless of how unfair it is. Budgets can be balanced without traffic camera money traps.

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