Senate panel advances latest bill banning traffic cameras

By: - February 25, 2021 4:40 pm

A Highway Helper assists motorists along Interstate Highway 235 in Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Department of Transportation)

Iowa Sen. Brad Zaun’s latest attempt to ban most traffic cameras advanced Thursday, but not before the Urbandale Republican got an earful from two big-city police chiefs and Democratic Sen. Tony Bisignano of Des Moines.

Bisignano, in a political jab at Republicans trying in separate legislation to withhold state funds from cities that defund police departments, said the traffic camera ban amounted to defunding police. 

“Sen. Zaun, I don’t know how we could say this bill does not deappropriate the Des Moines police” because current law designates the income from the cameras to law enforcement, Bisignano said.

Bisignano said he would consider offering an amendment paying the city back for its losses if the traffic cameras were going to be banned. 

He said local jurisdictions are in the best position to make safety decisions.

“People disrespect the speed limit and they choose to go through your neighborhood with absolutely no consideration for the people who live there or the children who may be at play. When we start getting into the neighborhood to decide what’s safe for my neighborhood, senator, I believe you’ve overstepped the bounds of the Legislature,” Bisignano said. 

Bisignano also questioned the exemption for Cedar Rapids, contending Des Moines’ Interstate Highway 235 is more dangerous. The bill would allow Cedar Rapids to keep its traffic cameras along a S-curve stretch of Interstate Highway 380. 

SSB 1176 would ban future installations or use of the equipment by the state or local jurisdictions, and would require the removal of the cameras everywhere but the one spot in Cedar Rapids. The bill advanced to the full Senate Judiciary Committee. Bisignano opposed the bill in the subcommittee.

The police chiefs of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s two largest cities, also opposed the bill.

Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert said the camera systems, known as automated traffic enforcement systems, work. The presence of the cameras tend to reduce speeds and accidents, he said. 

“It’s a very important part of our overall public safety,” Wingert said. The cameras have helped both in speeding cases and in monitoring “T-bone type crashes” that are among the most likely to have serious or fatal injuries, he added.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said data show the so-called automated systems reduced the number of crashes causing injuries or death. “Law enforcement continues to support (the cameras) not only for the safety of the general public, but also the safety of first responders to include police, fire, and ambulance personnel,” Jerman said.

Lobbyist Mike St. Clair, representing one of the vendors, Sensys Gatso, opposed the bill, agreeing that the equipment reduces speeds and accidents.

The Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association, the city of Des Moines and the Metropolitan Coalition also opposed the bill.

The only speaker favoring the ban, Lisa Davis-Cook of the Iowa Association for Justice, said the systems sometimes issue a ticket to the vehicle owner even though that person didn’t commit the offense. 

Zaun said he agreed to the exception for Cedar Rapids based on the data, but also was happy to see Windsor Heights shut off cameras after motorists complained. 

Zaun added that a small  town in northeast Iowa, which he didn’t name, plans to install the cameras. “You’re telling me that there’s a safety problem for a town of 1,338?” Zaun asked.

After moving to declare illegal millions of dollars in police department revenue, Zaun told the police chiefs in an apparent reference to proposed “Back the Blue” legislation: “It sickens me the way you have been portrayed and treated this last year and we’re going to pass some legislation to help you guys out.” He then adjourned the meeting.

“Wow,” Bisignano replied.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.