Speed gun use back in legislators' sights
By Kate Wilcox
Published: Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
To enforce speed limits, Greensburg police Sgt. Charles Irvin assembles a number of laser beams on either side of the road using a level and a series of sounds to balance the device. Then he sits in his patrol car and uses a control panel to track each vehicle's speed.
In any other state, he could simply point a radar gun at passing motorists to catch speeders.
Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn't allow municipal police to use radar speed guns. Only state police can use them.
House Bill 38, which is awaiting consideration by the House Transportation Committee, would allow officers who work for “full-service police departments” to use radar.
But since 1961, no efforts to expand radar use have gained traction.
Supporters say radar guns, considered effective and accurate, could improve safety and reduce fatalities. Opponents argue that radar can be used to rake in money through speed traps.
As Irvin set up the laser system last week, he said radar guns would be more cost-effective and efficient than the method he has to use.
North Huntingdon police Chief Andrew Lisiecki agrees but said he doesn't expect the law to change. The issue has come up in the legislature many times, he notes.
“I think literally every session of the General Assembly” has discussed it, said Eric Bugaile, executive director of the House Transportation Committee. “And it'll be brought up the next 100.”
House Bill 38, introduced by Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe County, was slowly moving forward but stalled when Chairman Dick Hess of Bedford died in September.
“It's the same bill I've introduced in the past,” Scavello said. “What's different is the prior chairman (Hess) was willing to take the bill up.”
Scavello said Hess had promised to hold a hearing, then bring the bill to a committee vote.
Scavello said he is not sure where the new chairman, Rep. Nick Micozzie, R-Delaware, stands on the issue.
Micozzie did not return calls seeking comment.
“We're basically back to square one,” Scavello said, noting that the committee is focused on the state transportation bill.
Bugaile said that while Pennsylvania is alone in banning radar for local police, most states have county police departments, not hundreds of small, municipal police departments. Pennsylvania's 67 counties have 2,562 municipalities.
“It needs to be put in perspective because you have many, many states which don't have the same kind of structure that we have with little borough police and township police” departments, he said. “You don't have boroughs with 200 to 300 people that have a policeman.”
Slower and safer
Some police chiefs say using radar would make highways safer by slowing down drivers.
“I don't know what the reasoning is that we haven't been permitted to use radar before ... whether it's they are afraid we'll use it as a moneymaking device or whatever. But that is simply not true,” said Southwest Regional Police Chief John Hartman, whose jurisdiction includes nine municipalities in Fayette, Greene and Washington counties.
Washington Township Police Chief Scott Slagle said the convenience of better technology would benefit officers in his Westmoreland County department.
“Right now, with our stop watch-type system, we have to paint lines on the road 200 yards apart, and on some small, rural roadways, getting those exact dimensions and then finding a place where we can sit so no one can see us makes it very difficult,” he said.
In Greensburg, the laser equipment Irvin used, known as ENRADD, must be set up and taken down and requires at least two officers to operate, making it more expensive and time-consuming than a radar gun, police Chief Walter Lyons said.
In residential areas, where Lyons gets the most speeding complaints, those methods aren't always feasible because of space constraints. Officers need at least 400 feet of visibility and a place to conceal their car.
“The radar gun would be a major help with that. You don't have to see painted lines on the roadway for distances and you don't have to have that visibility in a police vehicle,” Lyons said.
A revenue rake?
Jim Walker, a life member of the National Motorists Association, which advocates for motorists' rights, is against all officers using radar guns.
“Local authorities tend to abuse radar for revenue more so than state authorities,” he said.
But municipal police chiefs say they couldn't fund anything with speeding tickets.
“That is a big fallacy,” Lyons said.
He said the department pays overtime to send an officer to court when a driver contests a speeding ticket, which costs much more than the $17.50, or 50 percent of the fine, that the municipality receives.
Rep. Deberah L. Kula, D-Fayette/Westmoreland, said she's heard the opposition's arguments.
“We've had this brought up before, ‘Are municipal police using it as a revenue generator?' and I don't think they are,” she said. “I would hope it's more of a safety issue. I would like to see it (brought up) again.”
Whitehall Mayor Jim Nowalk is president of the Pennsylvania State Mayors' Association, which is a member of the newly formed Radar Coalition. The group supports a House bill that would allow radar for municipal departments.
Citing statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, Nowalk said the only way to reduce fatalities is to give police the right tools.
In 2011, 47.8 percent of traffic-related fatalities in Pennsylvania were caused by speeding, statistics show, far exceeding the national average of 31 percent.
“When you build a house, do you want craftsmen to not have all the tools available to them in their tool boxes?” asked Whitehall Police Chief Donald Dolfi. “It doesn't make sense, and that's the dilemma — from an enforcement end — that I have.”
Staff writer Paul Pierce contributed to this report. Kate Wilcox is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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