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New Legislation in Iowa Would Ban Traffic Cameras

The bill is also being paired with a crackdown on distracted driving in the state, a combination that recently drew concerns from the families of Iowans killed in distracted driving incidents.

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(TNS) — Iowa law enforcement officials and grieving families of Iowans killed by distracted drivers packed a Senate committee room Tuesday over a proposal that would pair a ban on automated traffic cameras with cracking down on motorists who talk into their smartphones as they drive.

More than a dozen individuals voiced opposition to a proposal by Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who has tried for years to ban traffic cameras, to link the two issues into one bill. A Senate subcommittee voted 2-1 to advance Senate Study Bill 3016.

Zaun has pushed to ban the cameras ever since he received a citation in 2011 after a camera captured his son speeding while driving the senator's vehicle in Cedar Rapids.

While he said he dislikes being on the opposite side of an issue from law enforcement, Zaun said he believes "fundamentally" the traffic cameras are unconstitutional.

The devices capture video of vehicles speeding or running red lights. Law enforcement then reviews the images captured by a camera vendor — which shows the license tag number — and issues citations to the vehicle's registered owners.

Relatives of three Iowans killed by drivers distracted by a smartphone pleaded with Zaun to advance a stand-alone bill to bar hand-held use of mobile devices while driving.

Peter Bengston told senators his daughter, Ellen, was riding her bicycle near Charles City in 2020 when she was killed by a driver who was opening an app on his cellphone.

"She did nothing wrong, but the driver confessed and walked free because of the current (law) out there," Benston said. "This is an issue of public highway safety and we ask that you have a clean hands-free-while-driving bill made public and prevent other families from going through the loss my family is going through right now."

Officers say the state's prohibition on texting while driving, enacted in 2017, is difficult to enforce because drivers can say they instead were making a call or using the device's GPS, which still is allowed under Iowa law.

The bill provides exceptions for the use of an electronic device in a voice-activated or hands-free mode and for first responders while on duty and health care professionals in the course of emergency situations. It also provides exceptions for receiving a weather or emergency alert, reporting an emergency situation, for those operating farm machinery and for certain radio operators and transit drivers.

Veronica Young, of Altoona, held a photo of her 22-year-old son, Derrius Taylor-Ly, who was killed last year in Bremer County by a driver who ran a stop sign.

"Hands-free is such a big deal and could save so much heartache," Young said. "My son was important. My son meant the world to a whole lot of people other than just family and he had a bright future that was taken away for absolutely no reason."

Kristi Castenson, who lives near Fort Dodge, held up a photo of her husband and their family. Dave Castenson and his 85-year-old mother were killed in 2015 by a driver using a smartphone. The driver was sentenced to probation and avoided jail time.

"We need to do something as citizens to protect the people in Iowa and everywhere because we're losing way too many people or people are being injured," she said. "It affects the rest of their life."

More people died on Iowa roads last year than in each of the past five years. A total of 378 people died in car crashes in Iowa in 2023, a 12 percent increase from 2022. Excessive speed, distracted driving, impaired driving and not wearing seat belts are some of the motorist behaviors that pushed fatalities up.

Law enforcement officials have asked lawmakers in recent years to pass legislation to ban hand-held use of mobile devices while driving in Iowa. Senate File 547 passed overwhelmingly in the Iowa Senate earlier this year, but the House hit the brakes.

Zaun said he chose to pair the two proposals "because I want pass something finally," suggesting House Republicans' support for banning traffic cameras would ease concerns about the distracted driving portion of the bill.

"It's a huge safety problem," said Zaun, who had voted against the hands-free-while-driving bill in the Senate.

'Our system has saved lives'

Troopers and officers from Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque and Fayette urged Zaun to drop his proposal to ban traffic cameras in Iowa after July 1, 2025. Lobbyists representing cities and police organizations said the proposals would limit an important traffic safety tool that has proved effective in reducing traffic crashes.

Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, opposed the bill, saying it would impose burdensome regulations and take away an important revenue stream for public safety.

Cedar Rapids installed its first speed cameras in 2010. As of March 2022, at least 19 Iowa cities and towns operated automatic traffic enforcement systems including Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Muscatine, Council Bluffs, Waterloo, LeClaire, Strawberry Point, Hudson, Chester, Buffalo, Miles, Independence and Oelwein, according to a Legislative Services Agency report. Marion added automated traffic cameras in 2023.

Lawmakers have floated several ways of regulate traffic cameras over the past several years, citing concerns about privacy and arguing some cities use them to drive revenue.

Cedar Rapids uses the cameras at nine locations along its primary highway system and major thoroughfares for both speed and red-light enforcement, including four speed cameras around the S-curve on Interstate 380 near downtown.

"Our automated traffic enforcement program in Cedar Rapids has always been about safety," Cedar Rapids Police Capt. Cody Estling told lawmakers. " ... And we know our system has saved lives."

Estling and other police officials from across the state said the cameras provide 24/7 traffic monitoring and enforcement at a significantly lower cost than deploying officers to those areas. That frees cities to focus strained resources elsewhere.

Law enforcement officials said they're willing to put guardrails on the use of traffic cameras to make sure that they're used for safety as opposed to generating revenue.

Zaun said he's concerned by the "proliferation" of systems in smaller communities, saying he's heard from police officials in those communities that the cameras are being used to generate revenue because of a lack of funding.

"That's not the reason to put traffic enforcement cameras in," he said.

© 2024 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.