Local police support bills for municipal radar use

A resident at the Conewango Township Supervisors’ meeting in June asked the chief of police to use a radar gun to help stop speeders in his neighborhood.

If only it was that easy.

By law, Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that does not allow municipal police officers to use radar guns.

Two bills introduced in April could change that.

Local police departments currently use methods approved under Pennsylvania law to measure vehicle speeds in lieu of radar including: using speed timing devices gauging time elapsed between two fixed points usually designated by white lines on a roadway and then calculating speed mathematically, measurement devices which automatically calculate speed traveled between two sensors and by checking speed against a patrol car speedometer.

House Bill 1272 and Senate Bill 1340 would both allow Pennsylvania’s municipal police departments to use radar for speed enforcement.

“Every state but Pennsylvania permits their local police to use radar for monitoring traffic speed. In Pennsylvania, only the State Police are authorized to use radar,” State Sen. Randy Vulakovich, who introduced Senate Bill 1340, said in an April press release. “We often talk about equipping our officers with the latest and best in technology; however, for some reason Pennsylvania has not yet provided its law enforcement officers with radar technology that has been around since World War II. It is well past time we provide our officers with this speed enforcement mechanism.”

Vulakovich said the bill is supported by the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, the Pennsylvania Municipal League, the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, the Pennsylvania Association of County Commissioners, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors and the Pennsylvania State Mayors Association.

State Sen. Scott Hutchinson said he’s heard from local officials, including council members and mayors, in his district and a few municipalities have drafted resolutions in support of allowing local police to use radar guns.

“I am generally suporrtive of the concept; I want to make sure it’s done the right way,”Hutchinson said. “After all these years I think it’s a proven technology and why wouldn’t we allow our local police to use that technology?”

State Rep. Kathy Rapp was unavailable for comment.

Locally, Conewango Township Police Chief Jason Peters and Youngsville Borough Chief of Police Todd Mineweaser say approving the use of radar would allow them to better do their job of keeping the public safe.

The Conewango Township Police Department uses various methods to enforce the posted speed limits, including following another vehicle to establish its speed with the police vehicle having an annual speed certification completed; using pressure sensitive strips that are taped across the roadway and are tethered to a box within the patrol car that gives a read-out of the passing car’s speed; an in-car device that is hard-wired into the patrol car’s odometer and having a built-in stopwatch where the officer is able to pick two points of travel of another vehicle and time that vehicle as it travels that distance to establish its speed; placing expensive sensors on either side of the roadway that are able to show the passing car’s speed; and using two painted lines on the roadway where the distance between them is programmed into a stopwatch and the officer has to start and stop the time to establish the vehicle’s speed.

“Each of these methods is tedious and dangerous for the officer as, some of these methods, the officer has to place himself in traffic to set them up. Some of these methods require two officers to complete. And most of these methods require the officer to catch up to the speeding car from a standstill after the car has passed, which also increases the danger and is hard on the patrol cars as well,” Peters said.

Radar, on the other hand, is a simple point and shoot. The officer does not have to be in traffic and can pull out prior to the speeding car approaching the officer, and only it only requires one officer to operate, he said.

“Critics argue that radar use by municipal police will be misused. That is why we have a judicial system. If you disagree with the citation, then you plead not guilty and the court will make the decision. Critics argue that radar use by municipal police will be done only to generate revenue. Legislatures that were elected by the people have established that traffic citations have fines and costs attached. If you take the least expensive traffic citation being $127.50, the municipality only receives $12.50. There is simply no legitimate reason for not allowing municipal police to use radar,” Peters said.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me. My point I would like to make clear is the more tools of the trade we all have the more effective we all are. Our agency will continue enforcing the traffic laws with or without radar. The goal is keeping our streets and highways safer with whatever devices we are approved to use,” Mineweaser said.

The issue of speeding locally, “that’s one of our biggest complaints,” he said.

On a side street in Youngsville where children often play, attempting to use methods other than radar to stop speeders is difficult, Mineweaser said, adding, “There’s really nowhere for us to sit where we can see the lines doing the speed timing. With radar you can catch them coming before they see you.”

Barring local police from using radar guns while entrusting them at the same time with handguns and to undergo sophisticated training for wiretaps or drug recognition expert training doesn’t make sense, Mineweaser said.

“I don’t understand it,” he said.

Elam Herr, the assistant executive director for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, echoed the Youngsville resident’s concern during testimony before the House Transportation Committee in May.

“Township supervisors frequently hear complaints from their residents that cars are traveling at excessive speeds and causing dangerous conditions on township roads. Residents worry about the safety of their children, their pets, and themselves on roads where speeding is prevalent. In fact, speeding and traffic-related conditions are the most frequent complaints received by the board of supervisors in many townships,” he said. “Allowing municipal police to use radar would greatly increase the ability to enforce speed limits on local roads and therefore improve safety for our communities. While municipal police currently possess several tools to enforce speed limits, all are inferior in terms of cost and flexibility to radar, which is one of the most commonly used tools by state police nationally and local police in the 49 other states. However, this critical safety tool is currently denied to local police in Pennsylvania.”

The National Motorists Association (NMA) , a Wisconsin-based organization whose stated goal is to protect the rights and interests of motorists, is against allowing the use of radar by municipal police.

“Radar does encourage the widespread operation of speed traps. That’s why the ban was passed in the first place. Speed traps are designed to target motorists by taking advantage of artificially low speed limits coupled with high traffic volume. Adding radar simply allows the police to prey on a larger number of responsible drivers, with no measurable benefit to highway safety. If safety were the goal, policymakers would mandate the proper setting of speed limits according to the 85th percentile standard, which would reduce accident rates and eliminate speed traps,” according to the organization’s website.

The NMA said radar is subject to errors and is unreliable for speed enforcement and can’t “distinguish a specific vehicle among a group of vehicles.”

The NMA also says power lines, electronic substations, trees, bad weather and operator error can interfere with the radar signal.

“The pending Pennsylvania legislation provides no mechanisms to limit any of the radar misuses and abuses described above. If radar use does spread to local police, it will come with little oversight or accountability. This is the case in many states, unfortunately,” the NMA said.