Locals make last push for red-light cameras petition


One local group pushing for a ban on red-light cameras is making a last effort in order to obtain enough public support.

Traffic cameras and drones were at the center of a public forum held on the University of Iowa campus Thursday night. The event is the latest push by the group called Stop Big Brother to reach the 2,500 signatures it needs by April 1 to petition the Iowa City City Council to ban the surveillance technology.

The organization has 2,300 signatures, said Aleksey Gurtovoy, a cofounder of the group.

The other cofounder, Marsha Hampel, said she thought the forum was successful but wished there had been more controversial questions from the audience. Roughly 30 people were in attendance.

Opinions on cameras and drones are varied. Opponents of the surveillance technologies believe they infringe on due process and invade privacy, but some government officials say that these new technologies improve safety with no harm done to law-abiding citizens.

The members of the forum panel each said that red-light cameras evidently value revenue over citizens’ safety. Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who spoke on the panel, said he had tested the idea by introducing legislation that capped violation fees at $50 for red-light camera offenders.

“Those cities and counties screamed when they heard about this,” Zaun said. “So my response back to them was, ‘I thought this was about public safety?’ ”

However, the Iowa City Executive Director and Transportation Planner John Yapp maintains that the biggest reason behind the camera system is primarily safety.

“Studies have been done in the state of Iowa that show that red-light cameras do decrease the amount of red-light running, which in turn decreases accidents,” he said.

Because red-light cameras bring in money, it makes them suspect, said Steve Gent, the Iowa Department of Transportation’s director for traffic safety. The transportation department has published findings that support the use of red-light cameras in a holistic approach to solving traffic problems.

“The DOT spends millions of dollars on safety projects, and we don’t get a penny back for any of those,” Gent said. “We think it’s good government to spend appropriate dollars for appropriate measures to make our citizens safe.”

The Iowa City City Council passed an ordinance in February 2012 to allow red-light cameras in Iowa City. According to City Council documents released Thursday, Yapp suggested that city officials hold off on subsequent consideration of red-light cameras in Iowa City until the Iowa Department of Transportation adopts rules for automated traffic enforcement.

But that makes it the perfect time to address the issue, said Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa.

“If we don’t deal with surveillance issues now when we have the chance, five years from now there will be nothing we can do,” he said.

Hampel said she doesn’t want to see a younger generation that thinks it’s normal to be watched, which is part of the reason drones are included in the petition.

But officials say privacy is something they consider when implementing new technologies. Yapp compared the red-light camera system to a DVR.

“You might be watching TV, but you’re not recording unless you hit the button,” he said. “It’s doesn’t record the vehicle unless you run the red light.”

Chelgren and some of the other panel members said they fear that the companies that maintain these cameras and government officials could inappropriately use the information the camera records. 

“My first question for people on the road is are you trying to hide from somebody?” Gent said. “I struggle with that issue. If somebody wants to avoid a camera, they need to avoid the roadway.”

Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa visiting professor of law, noted a similar point. 

“If you’re in public, you can not have an expectation of privacy,” he said, going on to explain the history and meaning of the Fourth Amendment in relation to the issue of the new surveillance technologies.

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