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Allegheny County municipalities again lead push for local police to use radar

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Municipal officials once again are trying to convince state legislators to allow local police to use radar guns for speed enforcement.

Since 1961, Pennsylvania State Police have been the only officers in the state authorized to operate radar or laser speed-measuring devices, leaving municipalities and legislators to try year after year to loosen the restrictions. Pennsylvania is the only state that restricts radar to state police.

Mt. Lebanon commissioner Kelly Fraasch has started RadarforPA.com to persuade the public and rally supporters. Now she, Whitehall Mayor James Nowalk and Mt. Lebanon police Chief Coleman McDonough are asking Allegheny County Council to back Senate Bill 1340 or House Bill 1272, which would allow local police to use radar.

“It's unbelievable when I sit in these (advisory board) meetings and start talking about it, how many residents think we already have it,” Fraasch said.

Mt. Lebanon passed a resolution last week supporting the bills. Other municipalities, including Brentwood and Whitehall, have passed supporting resolutions of their own, and Fraasch's website has a sample resolution for other towns.

Without radar guns or LiDAR (the laser-powered equivalent), local police must use alternative speed-measurement devices, such as pairs of roadside sensors or painted lines and timers, to determine a vehicle's speed.

But those methods require more space, more setup time and more manpower to operate than a radar gun that's calibrated once before a shift, said McDonough.

John Bowman, spokesman for the National Motorists Association, a Wisconsin-based drivers rights organization, said his organization remains opposed to the bills and others like them that have cropped up about once every two years for the last decade or so.

“The spread of radar technology to local police departments is conducive to setting up speed traps, which are inherently unfair to motorists and are not guided by highway safety concerns,” Bowman said.

McDonough said the most common arguments against allowing local cops to use radar — that it's just a way for municipalities to raise money through speeding tickets, and officers won't get training to properly run the equipment — don't hold water.

Revenue from traffic tickets is divided among the state, county and municipality, and the municipal share is seldom enough to cover the costs, McDonough said. He also said the technology is no more complicated than any other equipment officers use.

Pennsylvania has the country's third-highest number of traffic fatalities in which speed was a factor, said Nowalk, president of the Pennsylvania State Mayors' Association. Pennsylvania is behind only larger and more populated Texas and California.

“The places these lives are being lost are on roads enforced by local police departments,” he said. “It's worse than an unfunded mandate; we have the resources but we're not allowed to use them.”

Both bills are assigned to House and Senate transportation committees, respectively, awaiting debate and action there.

Nowalk and Bowman both noted that there appears to be a lot more interest this year in the bills, though Nowalk attributed it to municipalities getting more organized than in past years and not in response to residents wanting better speed enforcement. Bowman said more people are worried about increasing police power in an era of increased surveillance.

Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Col. Frank Noonan said through a spokesman that he favors lifting the restriction.

“It's an effective way to monitor speed on Pennsylvania's roadways, it's easy to use… and it's an effective tool,” said Trooper Adam Reed, State Police spokesman. “State Police already patrol many rural roads that don't have local police coverage and can use radar there, he said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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