Police across Pennsylvania make case for using radar guns at the local level

HARRISBURG -- More than 50 years after Pennsylvania state police began measuring speed with radar, municipal and law enforcement officials say it's time to arm local officers with the same tool.

But doing so requires a change in state law, and so last week advocates went before a Senate panel. Radar is so much more efficient and effective than the speed-detection methods used by local Pennsylvania law enforcement, they said, that employing it would lead to safer driving in the state.

"Understand one thing," state police Commissioner Frank Noonan said. "Giving the municipal police officers radar will save lives. There's just no question about it."

The senators on the Transportation Committee sounded amenable, but Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, warned speakers they should not expect immediate action.

"This is not going to be an easy subject of a bill to get through this General Assembly," Mr. Rafferty said. "When I announced that we were going to have a hearing for local police radar, some members of our caucus threw up their hands, and they're not alone."

The advocates seemed well aware of the resistance in some quarters to local radar, arguing repeatedly that cities, townships and boroughs would not benefit financially from writing speeding tickets. They said too little of the overall ticket price -- $17.50 for speeding where the limit is less than 65 mph, according to the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors -- goes to the municipalities to make the revenue a reasonable incentive.

In the state House of Representatives, spokesmen for both caucuses said some members do have that concern.

"It's not necessarily that the police would do it on their own. It's that they would get instructions to set up speed traps," said Republican spokesman Steve Miskin. "There is a fear they would be instructed to basically make it a revenue maker."

Dozens of municipalities have voiced support for legislation authorizing local radar. Allegheny County Council made such a motion in May, and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Councilman Dan Gilman plan to introduce a council resolution Tuesday in support of the bills.

"Pittsburgh and other local police forces deserve the same commonly used crime-fighting tools others use nationwide," Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Mr. Peduto, said in an email.

Pennsylvania is the only U.S. state that prohibits municipal police from using radar, according to a memo prepared by Richard Koch, then a student at Duquesne University School of Law, for the Pennsylvania State Mayors' Association. Legislators in 1961 authorized state -- but not municipal -- police to use radar.

Instead, local police use systems like VASCAR, which produces an average speed by measuring the time a vehicle takes to travel a certain distance. Elam Herr, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, wrote in his testimony to the Senate panel that VASCAR is inefficient because it requires at least two officers to operate.

Advocates for radar pointed to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showing Pennsylvania trailed only Texas and California in speeding-related traffic deaths in 2012.

State Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, is sponsoring one measure to allow any police officer to use radar, and Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, is sponsoring another.

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com, 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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