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Local police use radar in 49 states, but not here

Sunday, April 28, 2002

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When the Pirates and San Diego Padres square off this afternoon at PNC Park, a Pirates employee will use a radar gun to time the speed of every pitch.

But outside the park, Pittsburgh police won't be able to use radar to time the speed of drivers on General Robinson Street or anyplace else.

That's because municipal police in Pennsylvania, unlike their counterparts in 49 other states, are prohibited from using the half-century-old technology to enforce speed limits. Under Pennsylvania law, only state police can use radar.

What's the big deal?

"If you have an answer, I'd like to know it. I've been wracking my brain," said Amy Corl, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.

The Harrisburg-based association has for years pushed for legislation to allow local police to use radar or laser speed-timing devices, commonly known as LIDAR.

But the state Legislature has never wavered. State police have used radar for speed enforcement since 1962.

A bill that would permit full-time officers in departments that operate full time to use radar or LIDAR -- House Bill 1961 -- has been mired in the House Transportation Committee since October.

Efforts in other years have all failed. Prospects don't look much better this year.

"There's a lot of controversy over this,"' said Steve Drachler, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Perzel, R-Philadelphia. "That's an issue for which there is no clear consensus in the caucus, or even in the full House.

"There is a concern that local police departments will use it to raise revenue rather than control speeders. There is historical precedent for this concern."

Corl disputed that argument. She said the current proposal includes a provision that allows motorists to successfully defend themselves against a speeding ticket if a municipality derives more than 5 percent of its total budget from traffic violations.

Additionally, Dormont Police Chief Russell J. McKibben pointed out, local departments collect only part of the motor vehicle fines they issue.

For example, if someone travels 15 mph over the speed limit, the fine is $55, split evenly between the municipality and the state. But the state tacks on another $75 or so for the catastrophic accident trust fund, emergency medical services and court costs. That brings the total to about $130 -- $27.50 for the municipality and the rest for the state, noted McKibben, who also serves as third vice president of the state Chiefs of Police Association.

Another theory is that legislators are reluctant to pass a bill that would incur the wrath of constituents who speed and get caught.

Corl doesn't buy that argument, either.

"We have absolutely everyone on our side -- Mothers Against Drunk Driving, traffic safety groups, the state police, the Fraternal Order of Police. Absolutely everyone is on our side. Nobody could possibly be against this," Corl said.

"If you're speeding excessively, you should get a ticket. We're doing this to protect people. Police are not going to change what they do. They're not going to go out and write tickets for someone going two miles over the speed limit."

The bill includes a provision that no points would be charged against a driver's license unless that person were going 26 or more miles per hour over the speed limit. Now, getting caught at 26 mph over the limit nets an operator 5 points against the 11 needed for automatic license suspension.

Corl said her association strongly opposes that provision of the bill and would like to see the 26-mph window knocked down to about 6 mph.

Currently, state police do not issue tickets based on radar monitoring unless a motorist is traveling more than 6 mph over the speed limit.

The radar issue gained publicity this month when city Councilman Bob O'Connor introduced a bill asking state government to allow Pittsburgh officers to use radar guns. Council formally passed the bill last week.

Later, O'Connor said he was unaware of the bill backed by the chiefs association. He said he would try to amend the council bill to reflect support for that statewide effort.

O'Connor had introduced a similar measure in 1995 that went nowhere.

But since then, he said, traffic deaths and serious injuries, including a child pedestrian's death in the West End, have convinced a majority of his colleagues that something has to be done to curtail speeders, particularly in neighborhoods.

Also last week, the Allegheny County Mayors Association voted to contact legislators to indicate support for the municipal use of radar. But rather than pushing for HB 1961, the mayors say the easiest thing is to eliminate from the Motor Vehicle Code the section that says only state police can use radar.

Currently, local departments are resigned to using Vascar, a speed-monitoring system in which an officer uses a stopwatch to time how long it takes a vehicle to travel between two points -- sometimes as little as 100 feet -- indicated by painted lines.

Critics of Vascar, including many police officials, say the system is flawed because the difference of even a tenth of a second could mean the addition of 5 or more mph, depending upon the distance between the points.

"There can be human error involved," McKibben said. "I can make you do any speed I want you to, depending upon when I start the clock and when I stop it.

"Very seldom do we use it anymore. Philosophically, I have a problem with it not being fair to the driver."

Moreover, McKibben said, Vascar can be used on only straight stretches of roadway where vehicles can be clearly viewed at both marked points. Radar can be used anywhere.

"Most speeding complaints are in school zones and residential streets, and I'm powerless to set up Vascar there," said McKibben.

In addition to requiring painted lines on the roadway and the calculation of speeds, Vascar also is labor intensive because usually at least two officers, and sometimes more, are utilized. With radar, one officer can just point and shoot the radar gun.

But not everyone in the police community backs radar usage.

Pittsburgh police Sgt. Jim Malloy, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Pittsburgh lodge, said the union wasn't necessarily opposed to radar use but questioned whether it can cause cancer. He said more information was needed before Pittsburgh officers use such devices.

But O'Connor, Corl and even Michael Lutz, president of the Pennsylvania State FOP lodge, all disputed there was a health threat.

"Even the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said there is no health risk due to exposure to radar," Lutz said.

He said the state FOP would not oppose a bill as long as it included provisions preventing use of radar as a revenue generator and as long as officers are properly trained. HB 1961 addresses both issues.

Lutz also said the FOP doesn't want the use of radar to cause police to drop back on "the real issues of importance -- stopping crime and drugs. We're not for anybody standing behind a billboard using radar when they should be out there patrolling for criminals, for crime and drug use."

O'Connor said the issue simply was one of safety.

"I think we should target the areas that we feel are most dangerous, such as where kids walk home from school. If they use [radar] at midnight somewhere, well, that isn't the purpose. I don't want to write tickets. I just want people to drive reasonably in my community."

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