Storm Lake City Council is expected to hold a series of hearing sessions on automated traffic cameras, which are believed to reduce speeds by up to 88%.
According to City Manager Keri Navratil, complaints about speeding are common around Storm Lake. The city has experienced 650 accidents over the past five years, resulting in 195 injuries and one death, according to analysis the city commissioned from a provider of automated traffic surveillance cameras. Speeding, warnings and other traffic delays increased from 2021 to 2022; Personal injury accidents increased by 30% over the same period.
Navratil and Chief Chris Cole identified the cameras — remote-controlled devices that capture images of traffic violations and refer to subpoenas — as a remedy. Navratil noted that the city has been investigating automated traffic surveillance cameras for the past nine months. So on Monday, the city council heard an hour-long sales call from Sensys Gatso, a vendor that has contracts with 11 Iowa communities that use the automated devices.
“[Automated traffic surveillance camera vendors]are making Iowa communities safer by using traffic surveillance cameras as a force multiplier to complement their traffic surveillance strategies,” Chief Cole said in a prepared statement to the council. “Like most cities, one of the most common complaints we hear from our residents in Storm Lake is speeding and reckless driving. This technology can be used as a tool that enables consistent, predictable and unbiased enforcement of speed limits, making our city safer for both pedestrians and motorists.”
Rick Willing, Sensys Gatso’s business development director, told the council that the technology would be particularly helpful for Storm Lake. An analysis of nine Storm Lake locations showed that the volume of traffic violations was similar to other communities that had opted for automated enforcement, Willing said.
Specifically, the eastbound lane of the C49 and Prairie Road saw an estimated 867 violations in one day. According to an analysis commissioned by Sensys on behalf of the city, it was estimated that around 47% of traffic violated the city’s traffic rules. (Willing declined to identify the traffic engineer who conducted the study, although he described the engineer as independent.) More than 27 violations occurred at five city intersections, with drivers exceeding the speed limit by more than 20 miles. Eight of the nine locations surveyed experienced top speeds in excess of 75 miles per hour.
Willing emphasized that the violations took place in just one day.
“Even with small numbers, 35 drivers are still driving recklessly at the intersection of Milwaukee and Superior and endangering your community,” Willing told the council.
The council could implement a mix of speed cameras, red light cameras, or a “T-series separate system”, a configuration that equips an unmarked vehicle with radar.
Willing emphasized that no matter which arrangement the city chose, there would be no upfront cost to the city. The city would wire $35 to $40 per paid violation. Sensys has processed 1.7 million events nationwide; It has installed over 60 systems across the state of Iowa. Quotations and traffic data are processed via the company’s data center in Marion.
“The city basically has no expenses for this because ours are only dependent on income that can be collected for the fined violations,” Willing told the council.
The data center typically forwards subpoenas to an officer within three days of a violation occurring. Willing said it typically takes an officer about 45 seconds to review a red light violation. or 15 seconds for a speeding violation. It takes no more than an hour for an official to review the evidence sent from the Sensys data center. Sensys also manages notifications of municipal violations, regulatory hearings, and collections.
“We’re a full-service turnkey,” Willing said. “Your police department will only accept one violation that can be processed. The PD does not need to manage the incoming calls for violation inquiries.”
Councilwoman Maggie Martinez asked if Sensys could handle the dozens of languages spoken by Storm Lake residents.
The Marion call center and other resources used by Sensys can handle any language, Willing replied.
Councilwoman Martinez then asked if the company could reach Storm Lake’s population, which is particularly transient. Delivering mail to Storm Lake residents is particularly difficult because residents come and go frequently, Martinez said. Postmen often come across letters that cannot be forwarded, making automatic quotations difficult.
Subpoenas must be mailed to violators, Willing acknowledged, but the company has a variety of leverage to find violators when they can’t be mailed. Willing noted that the company “scrubs” the data mining platform LexisNexis to find infringers.
“We have some resources that we actually delete through LexisNexis and use alternative databases to identify addresses when the original breach notification has been deferred, not a forwarding address,” Willing said in an exchange with Martinez.
The technology, Willing noted, has advanced to the point where it can detect license plates and individuals in many lanes. The cameras take photos from 20 to 60 megapixels and live streams in 1080p quality. The City of Des Moines uses Sensys systems in the corridor of I-80. Willing noted that the system can support the SLPD’s criminal investigation department.
The four council members present at Monday’s meeting were intrigued by Willing’s findings.
“I would be more interested in what the public has to say,” said City Councilor Maria Ramos when asked by Mayor Mike Porsch how the council should proceed. Councilor Matt Ricklefs said automated traffic cameras are “a solution we really need to look at”. Councilwoman Maggie Martinez said “yes” when Porsch made his request.
Navratil, the city manager, said the council must take a number of actions before the automated cameras could be installed. First, the City Council will hold a series of public meetings. Second, the council must pass an ordinance that sets civil penalties for those crossing the cameras.
“Thank you for your presentation,” said Porsch to Willing. “It was very informative.”