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‘Gotcha’ cameras won’t prevent Figure 8-like fatalities, but saving lives are not what they’re about

'Gotcha' cameras won't prevent Figure 8-like fatalities, but saving lives are not what they're about
Press photo by John Burbridge
You don’t have to be a spectator at any of the local Figure-8 races to potentially witness harrowing vehicle mishaps like this. Just monitor one of many stop sign-less intersections throughout Charles City and you might get lucky. The city continues to ignore these deathtraps, but at least it has installed fine-yielding speed cameras to supposedly save lives while making these same lives miserable.

By John Burbridge

I first covered and experienced Figure-8 racing at the Floyd County Fairgrounds.

From an elevated vantage, I trained my camera lens smack dab in the middle of the foreboding intersection in hopes to snap some good action shots.

Yeah, there were a couple scrapes and exchanges of paint, but nothing spectacular by newspaper standards. The races were midway through the Figure-8 season and part of the family-friendly grandstand events held during the weeks of the fair that summer.

I returned to the fairgrounds the following September for the final races of the season, and that’s when I truly learned Figure-8 racing is not for the faint of heart.

With season-end payoffs on the line, the drivers were more aggressive and, thus, more accommodating in providing the opportunities for breathtaking photos, including the pic above where the rear-ended car was flipped over and the driver had to be extracted and taken to the hospital.

There were three trips to the hospital that night. One was for life-threatening injuries. More importantly, though, I got some great “art”. Gotta sell papers.

Later, I got to thinking that maybe I was a factor in these near-death experiences. Like a quantum mechanics scientist who can supposedly affect a subatomic particle by merely observing it, did my camera focused in the heart of the 8 conjure a magnetic/vibratic bead to attract vehicle carnage?

Nonsense, I eventually assured myself. Cameras don’t cause vehicle mishaps. Drivers do.

I got to interview some of the Figure-8 racers, several of whom were from Charles City. Similar to Indiana with its numerous youth kart racing tracks providing the foundation for future racing legends like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick, the street grid of Charles City offers great test-track training opportunities for Figure-8 prospects with its plethora of semi-busy intersections sans any stop signs.

Even if you don’t have Figure-8 aspirations, you’d better be alert while navigating through the city’s fraught labyrinth if you don’t want to become a gruesome statistic … and help us sell papers.

But don’t fret too much if you’re among those faint of heart. At least Charles City has recently installed speed cameras for the common good. Now everybody say CHEESE!

Now I’m not the most photogenic guy around, at least when it comes to being on the other side of the camera. But that didn’t stop my vehicle from being the subject of multiple photo ops.

To share a little more information about myself, I haven’t had a moving violation in 15 years and have only incurred a grand total of two since I first got my license just out of high school. Mind you, I started driving during an era when you could still change your radiator, water pump and even transmission in your own garage. I also religiously refrain from getting behind the wheel in altered states. But thanks to these “gotcha” cameras, now all of a sudden I’m The Dukes of Hazzard.

Shouldn’t complain too much. They were warning tickets. But then came these nagging “rumors” that the grace period is over and fines of $75 to $100 are forthcoming. Again, rumors I thought, but then I was provided testimonials as well as tangible evidence that these rumors are true and some of these fines have already been paid. Furthermore, the frequency of fines has accelerated to a windfall pace.

What’s dubious about this is the said grace period ended nearly simultaneously with the Iowa Senate approving a bill by a 43 to 1 margin a week after the Iowa House voted approvingly 85 to 12 to impose substantial regulations for traffic cameras that automatically issue speeding tickets. One of the bill’s mandates is that “cities with a population of 20,000 or less could only have mobile speed camera systems to issue warnings, not tickets.”

All that waits for this bill to become law is Governor Kim Reynolds’s pending signature.

Proponents for speed cameras have window dressed their cause with platitudes citing social responsibility, self restraint and respect for the law. But instead of prudently suspending photo shoots in anticipation to the seemingly inevitable bill’s passage and then re-tooling policy accordingly, Charles City just blows through the stop light to fleece as many motorists it can catch ahead of the governor’s road-block signature.

Speed cameras that issue fines are wrong at so many levels that it’s hard to define proper evisceration. Are they examples of turkey-vulcher profiteering at its most avarice nature? An unholy alliance of government overreach and high-tech entrapment? Big Brother fascism performed with the arrogance that the victims won’t have the agency to stand up for themselves and just pay up? All of the above? Some of the above?

I’ll tell you what these cameras are not  — Constitutional.

Speed cameras have survived periodic run-ins with the Iowa Supreme Court and other state courts, though in a parallel universe where traffic violation disputes can somehow ascend all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, speed cameras would likely be photo bombed out of existence.

And we just might be in that universe.

Speed cameras blatantly violate the Fifth Amendment which require due process of the law … i.e. do you actually have proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that the defendant was behind the wheel of the vehicle that got its license plate photoed?; and the Sixth Amendment which grants defendants the right to confront witnesses during a trial and to require witnesses to appear at the defendant’s trial. That may be hard to do at some trials that don’t allow cameras in the courtroom.

Speed camera fines and the anxiety and hardships that come with their framed photos are grossly unsympathetic to people struggling to make ends meet amidst the current inflation surge who may already be burdened with medical debt in the wake of a worldwide pandemic, and who may have a hard time putting food on the table without having more reason to fret whenever they open their mailboxes to learn if they’ve been sideswiped for another $100, $200, $300 or more dollars or not; to business owners who employ multiple drivers who drive multiple business vehicles that traverse county and state lines, who earnestly pursue the American Dream while providing needed paychecks to others, but now have another ball-breaking item to add to their debt ratio ledger that might lead to layoffs; and to people who hustle to earn their living on the road while providing the lifeblood and livelihood for a vibrant and healthy community — i.e. semi-truck and tractor-trailer drivers, agriculture and seed salesmen, medical home-oxygen haulers, auto parts delivery men and women, computer-chip delivery men and women, exotic coffee couriers, grocery and produce suppliers, restaurant suppliers, heating and air technicians, internet installers, Uber drivers, DoorDash drivers, drinking water suppliers, pizza delivery men and women, caretakers who drive their clients to and from doctor visits, concrete truck drivers, and … um … journalists — who now are forced to negotiate through and around these faceless and spineless robots programmed for highway robbery.

There’s a term for a person who flippantly displays such lack of sympathy and empathy toward the victims they wantonly exploit.


And don’t believe these confidence men when they claim speed cameras are all about saving lives. Especially in regards to Charles City.

Where I get caught repeatedly is coming back to Charles City westbound on U.S. 18 adjacent to Superior Lumber. There is a sign posting a limit of 45 miles per hour, and then about a touchdown pass up the road is another sign at 30 miles per hour. It’s right there where you get popped. Even when you’re ready for the abrupt decrease in the speed limit, you still almost have to slam your brakes for the needed deceleration.

If this is conscientiously designed to slow people down to a safer speed entering the city, then why not have the previous sign at 30 mph ahead of the camera waiting in ambush?

Again, this is not about safety; it’s about shooting fish in a barrel to soak drivers for easy money.

And if the city is really about preventing traffic fatalities, then start putting up stop signs at these aforementioned Figure-8 deathtraps where a disproportionate amount of serious accidents in the city occur. How do I know this? By being tasked to proofread the “For the Record” page in the Charles City Press that lists accidents on a twice-a-week basis.

For a small town like Charles City to embrace speed cameras is bad acting, bad public relations … bad business.

The repeated leadership turnover within the Charles City School District is attributed to the rapid decline in enrollment. Charles City is not just losing students, it’s hemorrhaging them. The same can be said about the population itself. The problem is not only finding a way to get more people, families and talent to stick around, but how to attract new people, families and talent to the community and get them to stick around.

How are you going to do that when unsuspecting visitors can potentially get gouged at all five major entry points every time they approach city limits?

People will likely start avoiding Charles City like the plague causing local businesses to suffer and to pull up stakes, the tax base to shrink, necessities like quality education and ambulance service becoming severely compromised if not already, and for the city itself to resort to more insidious shakedown schemes like the one mentioned above and below just to balance the books.

(By the way, who’s paying for the installation of these cameras and their complementing bait-and-snap signage as well as their imminent removal?)

All told, this supposed perpetual money maker lip-glossed with good intentions is about as ill-conceived as the New York Mets’ payroll.

I am appalled so many small communities across the state as well as the nation have swallowed this nefarious looting network hook, line and sinker. I would love to think the dissipating state of local journalism has encouraged the perpetrators to sneak this act of thievery past everyone’s nose, but really I should HATE to think that.


There’s only one way to rectify this. Or make that two ways. One: refund any speed camera fines that have already been paid and do it immediately. And Two: nullify any fines sent out or currently being processed … immediately. This is not a plea for forgiveness; this is a demand to correct a deplorable error in civil service judgment.

This, of course, means scuttling the whole malignant enterprise with (hopefully) the promise of never attempting a harebrained stunt like this again, which — I might add — may be a good idea when considering how many residents have singed my ears with justified outrage.

Otherwise, expect the ensuing remonstrance to be fierce, relentless and warranted.

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