Waterloo, Iowa, has a Central Command of traffic management that allows signal technicians to keep an eye on 17 locations around town and adjust the signal as needed, according to wcfcourier.com.
The video cameras at the 17 intersections beam back images to a computer in the Traffic Operations department, where technician Matt Vlasak is stationed. He told the Waterloo Courier that he has more flexibility in making a positive difference in traffic by remotely changing the signal instead of driving out to a location.
These are not the controversial traffic cameras being debated by the Iowa Legislature, which are used in some cities to issue tickets for speeding or running red lights. Waterloo doesn't employ those yet. But based on frequent questions about obvious cameras on signal arms, the motoring public may not always know the difference.
Waterloo began using the traffic monitoring cameras in 2003, when two cameras were installed at two busy intersections.
The latest was installed at what was once the "most dangerous" intersection in Iowa but has been free of serious injury accidents for about three years.
"We were one of the first cities to have a wireless backbone for the cameras," said Traffic Engineer Mohammad Elahi told the Courier. "Most of the bigger cities have them now, but they use fiber optics for the backbone."
The cameras and wireless antennas cost about $7,000 to $8,000 each. Most of the installations in Waterloo were funded with state traffic safety grants, but City Council members are slated to open bids Feb. 13 to install two cameras each three additional intersections using local bond funding.
The ability to see what is happening at an intersection and make adjustments in timing is just one benefit of the cameras. Traffic engineers are also able record and view accidents, giving them a better understanding of what happened and helping design safety improvements.
"The police department really likes these because they don't have to recreate the accident," said Traffic Operations Superintendent Sandie Greco told the Courier.
Police officers, deputies, state troopers and even insurance agents have all been in to view accidents captured by the cameras to resolve disputes.
Elahi said the cameras may eventually be accessible to the fire department so they can view an accident and have a better idea of what equipment is necessary in an emergency response. The new public works building now under construction will give the street department access to the camera system too.
Greco noted her staff was able to watch flood waters affecting the intersections with cameras in the June 2008 disaster. In the future, the department could view and change signal timings during an emergency to help speed up an evacuation.