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Pennsylvania speeders beware: Local police radar bill advances

Matthew Santoni
| Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, 4:06 p.m.
A Pennsylvania state trooper checks a motorist's speed with a radar gun along Route 28 near the Cheswick exit.
Tribune-Review file photo
A Pennsylvania state trooper checks a motorist's speed with a radar gun along Route 28 near the Cheswick exit.

A bill allowing municipal police departments to enforce speed limits with radar has advanced in the Pennsylvania Legislature, though expanding radar use beyond the state police has failed to pass for more than 50 years.

After months of consideration, the appropriations committee advanced Senate Bill 251 to the full Senate this week. A vote has not been scheduled. The bill would let municipalities pass their own ordinances allowing their police departments to use radar for speed enforcement, for which they are currently limited to visual and timing-based systems.

“For years and years, these bills never even moved out of committee,” said Charlie O'Neill, legislative director for Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, the bill's lead sponsor. “The previous version of the bill ... passed the Senate 47-3 . We sent it to the House, but they took it up late in the session and it just ran out.”

The current version of the bill advanced through the Transportation and Appropriations committees earlier in the two-year legislative session and may stand a better chance if it has more time to get through the House, O'Neill said. The Senate is next in session Oct. 16; the House has 21 session days scheduled between then and Dec. 20.

State troopers have been the only Pennsylvania law enforcement allowed to operate radar since they began using it in 1962, and Pennsylvania is the only state that prohibits municipal police from using radar to catch speeders. Without radar, local police are limited to VASCAR, a system that times how long it takes a vehicle to pass between two marked points on the road.

Opponents like the National Motorists Association say expanding radar and lidar to municipal police would open the door for speed traps solely to enhance municipal revenue.

“Many speed traps occur where the speed limits change. When a limit goes down, people may not immediately slow down. When it rises, people speed up slightly before they get to the sign. This stuff is predatory,” said James Sikorski Jr., the Pennsylvania advocate for the association.

Technology issues

“Radar would encourage the issuance of more tickets because it is easier and cheaper than some current technology,” Sikorski said. “Since every governmental entity is broke, drivers are perceived to be a huge cash cow. Say it is for safety, and many people will fall for it.”

He questioned the accuracy of radar, which measures speed with radio waves, and lidar, which uses light. He said roads, ramps and speed limits need to be better engineered to prevent sudden slowdowns and crashes.

Perhaps to address such concerns, the bill would require municipalities using radar to report speeding-ticket revenue to the state each year.

“We as a police department and we as an association have been actively attempting to get a radar bill passed,” said Dave Laux, chief of the Fox Chapel Police Department and chairman of the executive committee for the Western Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. “A lot of municipalities just don't have the sight distance; non-radar speed enforcement devices just don't work as well.”

Details questioned

The association represents police in 21 counties, including Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland.

Laux feels the revenue-reporting requirements of the bill are offensive to law enforcement and contended that such large shares of every speeding citation fine going to the state and courts that writing more tickets is an ineffective way to raise money.

“I'm sure the state doesn't require that (reporting) from state troopers,” Laux said.

He welcomed the opportunity to engage both sides in the debate — residents who want police to crack down on speeding and drivers who think speed limits are set too low to make money — since the bill as written would give people the chance to talk to their mayors and councils to decide whether radar is used in their communities.

But Laux isn't optimistic yet about winning a fight that's been going on for decades.

“The cynical side of me is saying, ‘Let's see how far it goes,' ” he said.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or via Twitter @msantoni.

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