MUSCATINE — Though it does not have the most crashes, the most major injuries or the highest volume of traffic, the University Drive-Highway 61 intersection and the speeding camera that monitors it have generated a lot of attention.
Already, the intersection has cost the city at least $161,000 in legal fees since the city decided to join other municipalities in challenging the Iowa DOT order to take down a few of their cameras in March of 2015. But this is not to say that the intersection is not dangerous.
In a January 9 news release, the city said speeding violations tripled between May and November 2017. Between 2013 and 2016, the tickets generated $1.3 million in revenue for the City.
“And that is just drivers who were recorded driving from 11 to 49 mph over the legal speed limit," Kevin Jenison, the city’s communications manager, said in the news release. "The top speed recorded was 94 mph and that is an accident waiting to happen.”
On December 31, the City of Muscatine released data on speeding violations at the intersection:
Between 2016 and 2017, there was an increase in recorded speeding violations of 228 percent between 2016 and 2017.
Phil Sargent, assistant to Muscatine’s Police Chief, said in a news release that these numbers “speak volumes.”
“We have been fortunate that there has not been an increase in accidents, just a big jump in the number of drivers going through the intersection at excessive speeds,” Sargent said. “At some point, we may run out of luck.”
Though the city maintains that the intersection is a safety hazard, the conversation has revolved around the existence of the speeding camera at the intersection.
In the Iowa Legislature, there is a bill, Senate Study Bill 3025, which would require local governments to remove existing cameras. The bill passed out of the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee and is headed to the Senate floor for debate. House Study Bill 512 would ban speed and traffic enforcement cameras as well as any local ordinances permitting them. The House Study Bill remains in committee.
Unfortunately, all the attention surrounding Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE) cameras has made it seem like there are only two choices.
“There are no other options on the table,” Kevin Jenison said Friday, Jan. 26. “The only option is to use ATEs or to not use an ATE. Right now that is the only debate there is.”
What would an all-encompassing approach to traffic safety look like?
Steve Gent director of Office and Traffic and Safety for Iowa DOT said traffic cameras are one of several ways to approach improving an intersection's safety.
“The point is that there are always more than one safety countermeasures,” said Steve Gent, director of the Office of Traffic and Safety for Iowa DOT. “And that’s why at the Iowa DOT, we are always about doing an evaluation and making sure it is done right and that we are looking at all the alternatives out there.”
When a safety concern emerges, Gent said it is important to use an engineering process. A problem is identified. Then an analysis begins to investigate the causes of the problem. Potential safety countermeasures are introduced.
“Some countermeasures are going to be short-term,” Gent said. “Some are going to be long-term. Some are going to be cheap. Some are going to be expensive. Some can be implemented this week. Others will take years to get implemented.”
One court has already affirmed IDOT’s order for the City of Muscatine to permanently remove the westbound camera from the intersection of University Drive and Highway 61.
Gent talked about other countermeasures available to the city that might make the intersection more safe. Though the city is charged with enforcement at the intersection, because it is on the state primary road system modification, any modification will have to be approved by IDOT. Though that adds layers of bureaucracy to the decision, it also adds oversight.
The Muscatine Journal reached out to the City of Muscatine’s Administrator Gregg Mandsager for comment beginning on January 26 and has not received a response.
Yellow light interval duration
Yellow light intervals need to be long enough to safely allow a vehicle to pass through the intersection from the onset of the yellow and before it changes to red. Best practice asks that the yellow interval be long enough for 85 percent of a sample of drivers to be able to safely pass through the intersection.
A 2004 study found that increasing the yellow phase by one second can potentially reduce red light running frequency by 50 percent. Another from 2008 found that an increase of 1 second reduced red-light-running by 36 percent.
CTRE's analysis found that this would be an inexpensive adjustment to traffic lights already in use that could be implemented quickly. But intersection delays would increase, and there is always the risk of drivers adapting to longer yellow intervals resulting in continued red light running.
Gent said that such a change would probably need to happen system wide so that there is regularity and drivers know what to expect.
“This would give drivers even a second longer to react responsibly on the road,” Gent said. “It would vary depending on the speed of drivers."
Increase the all-red clearance interval
An all-red interval occurs when all signals at an intersection display a red phase. It allows drivers who enter during the yellow interval to safely clear the intersection before it turns green. While it is unlikely to adjust behavior, it could decrease the chance of a crash happening if a driver does run the red light.
A 2000 study of three intersections in Detroit found a significant reduction in right-angle crashes. But another from 2004 in Minneapolis saw no long-term reduction in crashes. One study of seven intersections in North Carolina saw a 5.5 percent increase in right-angle crashes and a 9.8 percent increase in total crashes when a one second all-red interval was added.
CTRE's analysis said that it would cheap and quick to implement the change. But it would also increase the intersection delay. And similar to the yellow interval, when drivers become aware of the all-red interval increase, they may be more likely to enter the intersection late.
“The all-red is a short time where everybody has a red light,” Gent said. “It allows everybody to get through an intersection in case the miss the light.”
Advanced warning flashers
Flashers with signage warning oncoming traffic of a coming stoplight could give drivers the extra reaction time they need to adjust to the speed limit decrease.
In a 1994 study of 18 intersections, researchers observed that 100 signal cycles and found that 67 percent fewer red light runners at signals with advance warning than those without active beacons. A 1999 study from Minnesota found that the warning sign with active beacons reduced the red-light-running frequency by 29 percent. A 1996 survey of states and literature suggested a 25 percent crash reduction factor when using intersection advanced warning beacons. A 2004 study of two sites in Texas found a reduction in red-light-running within the first five seconds of a red interval to be about 40 to 45 percent when using a system that provides advance warning at the end of the green phase.
According to the CTRE, these would provide additional warning and reaction time and are effective for the large, commercial vehicles that use the intersection heavily. In addition, they are relatively cheap to implement. But they can increase the zone at which cars begin slowing down, thereby increasing the zone of heightened potential for rear end collisions. Over time, drivers may begin relying on the sign rather than checking signal changes.
“When you’re coming from a rural area and into a more urban area, the signs will say, ‘prepare to stop when flashing,’” Gent said. “We (Iowa DOT) always thought that would be a good addition to this location.”
Speed Feedback Signs
Gent said that using speed feedback signs on the approach to the intersection — signs that tell drivers how fast they are driving — would be a good way to condition drivers to slow down.
“There have been studies done that these types of signs generally slow people down,” Gent said. “It’s active and it’s moving and it’s monitoring as different vehicles approach … It’s kind of personal because it gives you feedback on the speed you are driving.”
One 2009 study conducted in Bellevue, Washington, on an urban two-lane roads with speed limits that ranged from 25 to 35 mph speed limits saw an average reduction in the 85th percentile speed of 4.2 mph 12 months after installation and a reduction of 6.3 mph four and eight years later.
Though he said they cannot be used everywhere, Gent said that on approaches like these where drivers may not be reading every sign, the flashing lights that announce a drivers speed can help get their attention.
“It grabs your attention, and that’s a key component to this particular system,” Gent said. “It tells you that something is coming and it’s critical. Those do much more than just a regular sign."
Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE) cameras
Traffic cameras are a newer law enforcement tool used at the intersection to issue tickets to drivers that pass through the intersection 11 mph over the posted speed limit.
A 2007 study by the CTRE of two Iowa towns, Council Bluffs and Davenport, found that crashes from cars running red lights were reduced by 40 percent in Davenport and 90 percent in Council Bluffs. Total crashes were reduced by 20 percent and 44 percent respectively.
A 2008 study done in Scottsdale, Arizona, put up speed cameras for nine months on an eight-mile stretch of urban Interstate to see how speed would be effected. The average speed before the cameras was 70 mph, which decreased to 63 mph right after implementation. The speeds stayed around the posted 65 mph limit throughout the time period.
But after the cameras were removed, the speeds increased again to 69 mph. This is similar to the earlier mentioned rise in recorded speed violations at the University Drive-Highway 61 intersection during 2017.
One difference between this method and others is an ATE creates an additional revenue stream for the City gathered from drivers who pass through 11 mph over the limit.
“Cameras can work in some locations,” Gent said. “But they are just one safety countermeasure."
But unlike other measures, speeding cameras are held up in court.
Adjusting for speed
Iowa DOT created the speed transition zone and also created the regulation that speeding cameras could not be placed within 1,000 feet of a speed transition.
According to a news release from the City of Muscatine, Police Chief Brett Tarkington inquired twice in 2014 about moving the signs, though that hasn't happened.
“What is the public going to think if we move a speed limit sign?” Gent told the Journal in January. “That’s going to make us all look like we (IDOT and the City) are in cahoots together. We don’t want it to look like the DOT is making it easier for drivers to get more tickets.”
CTRE reported that, nationally, speed is second only to alcohol as a major contributing factor in fatal crashes. In Iowa however, speed is only the third highest contributing factor behind alcohol and stop sign/traffic signal violations.
A 2008 study in Minnesota showed that changing (raising or lowering) the speed limit did not significantly change the 85th percentile speed, the speed at which 85 percent of drivers move at. This, according to the study, demonstrates that most drivers will drive at a speed they feel is proper and safe; the design elements along the road signal to drivers how fast they should go.