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Traffic safety puts change on radar in Pa.

| Saturday, July 5, 2014, 12:21 a.m.

Pennsylvania is the last state in the country to forbid local police from using radar for speed enforcement, but that could be changing.

State Sen. James R. Brewster, D-McKeesport, whose district includes Monroeville and Plum, said a Senate transportation committee hearing in Harrisburg in June renewed the debate with one big difference.

For the first time in more than 40 years, state police support the idea of local police use of radar or the newer laser-based, speed-enforcement system known as LIDAR.

The reason, he said, is safety.

Still, critics aren't happy.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, is a longtime opponent of local radar use and says he hasn't changed his mind. Ferlo also isn't a fan of red light cameras being tested in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh or drunken driving checkpoints used everywhere.

He instead thinks regular police on patrol will make more arrests of impaired or distracted drivers than with other tactics.

He believes municipal police use of radar or LIDAR is “questionable,” he said. “I'm fearful it will be used as a revenue generator.”

He isn't alone in that view.

“Radar and LIDAR promote the establishment of speed traps,” said John Bowman, a spokesman for the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association.

“We hope things stay the same in Pennsylvania,” Bowman said.

The association ranks Pennsylvania 41st among the 50 states for law enforcement use of DUI checkpoints and federally funded ticket blitzes.

Brewster said there are restrictions included in the legislation to thwart speed traps.

Brewster, a former mayor, said he listened to numerous versions of radar legislation. He said the General Assembly has no intention of allowing radar to be used as a money-maker.

“If any community somehow thinks they can take advantage of this and tries to have a speed trap, they will get a visit from law enforcement. The idea is to improve safety,” said Brewster, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

State Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, is “willing to support it, generally speaking,” said his spokesman Joe Pittman.

State Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, said he is still reviewing the issue. For the past three weeks, the Appropriations Committee member has been immersed in budget wrangling.

“State police dropping their opposition is a big thing,” he noted.

Other area lawmakers didn't return calls for comment.

But local use of radar won't be happening soon.

The local radar bills are only at the hearing stage, and no votes are planned to push the issue to the floor of the Senate or House.

Some bill versions limit officers to use radar only on roads owned by the city, town, township or borough. Others bills would give local police the go ahead if more of the speeding ticket money is sent to municipalities.

“We have to fine tune them,” Brewster said. That process won't be easy or happen quickly.

Dane Merryman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, said local police radar use is long overdue.

Speed enforcement reduces deaths, he said.

“The same regulations and protocols that apply to state police would apply to municipal police,” he said. Worries about widespread abuse are “unfounded,” he added.

The retired state trooper and municipal officer said, from his experience, speeding is a major cause of accident and injury.

“This would be very proactive and we need it,” said Kittanning police Chief Bruce Matthews.

There often isn't room for VASCAR, a speed detection alternative, in neighborhoods, he said.

Radar or LIDAR would increase accuracy, Harrison police Chief Mike Klein said.

“It takes any human error out of it,” he said. “How is it OK for every other state to have this and Pennsylvania doesn't?”

West Deer police Chief Jon Lape said a municipality normally gets $17.50 from a $155 ticket for driving 10 mph over the speed limit. Most of the fine goes to the state.

If an officer goes to the district judge hearing to testify and the officer is off duty, then the $17.50 disappears for overtime, Lape said.

Springdale police Chief Julio F. Medeiros III finds the lack of local radar troublesome and maybe humorous.

“I have worked in Rhode Island, Nebraska and South Dakota. I've used radar since the 1980s and LIDAR since 2000. When I arrived in Pennsylvania, I asked, ‘Is this a joke?' and they said no. I absolutely endorse local police radar use. I endorse it 1,000 percent.”

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

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