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In Pa., local cops can’t use radar to catch speeders. That could soon change

Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that bans municipal police officers from using radar to enforce speed limits. There's a push in the legislature to change that.

In this file photo, Cherry Hill Police Officer John Domingo points his radar gun at westbound traffic on Route 70.
In this file photo, Cherry Hill Police Officer John Domingo points his radar gun at westbound traffic on Route 70.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT

Greg Rothman sat in a police cruiser, watching approaching traffic in the rearview mirror.

When a passing car's front tire touched one painted white line, Rothman quickly hit a toggle switch. Fractions of a second later, as the same tire crossed the next line, about 30 feet down, he tried to time a second flip of the switch.

Local police officers outside Harrisburg had invited Rothman to the road — one where a speeding driver killed a woman walking her dog the previous year — to see how they tried to enforce speed limits.

"I thought, 'This is absurd,' " said Rothman, a Republican House member from Cumberland County.

Before the exercise, he didn't know there was one tool local police officers in Pennsylvania can't use to catch speeders: radar guns.

The state is the only one nationwide that bans municipal police officers from using radar to enforce speed limits. For the last 57 years, Pennsylvania has reserved that technology for state troopers.

Being able to use radar "would be a tremendous benefit," said Scott Bohn, West Chester Borough's police chief and president of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. "With the increase in vehicular traffic, specifically here in the southeast where there's a tremendous amount of growth, there's a daily request for traffic assessments and studies and speed enforcement on our roadways."

More than 50 years after the police chiefs association listed getting radar as a top priority, a bill allowing municipal police to use the technology has gotten farther than ever in the state legislature. But long-standing objections — including that police will use radar in speed traps to make money — persist.

Since 2014, Pennsylvania troopers have written more than 650,000 speeding tickets — which typically carry fines and fees of more than $150. Troopers clocked drivers with radar in 93 percent of those cases.

Supporters argue that giving radar to local police will slow down drivers and save lives. Police say the technology will reduce opportunities for human and mechanical error when recording drivers' speeds, allow speed enforcement on roads not suited to other methods, and enable officers to identify speeders without having to traipse into roadways to set up their traps or leave expensive equipment behind to pursue and apprehend them.

Those other methods "are not as accurate or efficient as radar," said Thomas Gross, executive director of the police chiefs association, who said the ban on local radar use is "inexplicable."

Though differences in training requirements for troopers and local officers may once have explained why legislators wrote the law, "those differences have long since disappeared," said Gross, a police chief for nearly half of his 42 years in law enforcement.

Other statewide groups that banded together a few years ago to advocate for local radar use include the Fraternal Order of Police Pennsylvania State Lodge, the Pennsylvania Municipal League, the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, the Pennsylvania Association of Township Commissioners, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, and the Pennsylvania State Mayors' Association.

Residents don't generally complain at their local government meetings that people are driving too slowly in their towns, mayors said. Thirty percent of fatal crashes of speeding passenger vehicles happen on local roads, according to a 2017 National Transportation Safety Board study. Speeding was a factor in more than 10,000 fatalities in 2016, or 27 percent, according to a 2018 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

"It couldn't be more clear we need this tool in order to bring those numbers down on roads on which we have a responsibility," said James Nowalk, president of the Pennsylvania State Mayors' Association.

But the National Motorists Association says not so fast.

"People are not crazy," said James Walker, president of the association, which was formed in 1982 by opponents of the national 55-mph speed limit and now lobbies on behalf of drivers. "Most people get it right most of the time."

The term speed-related when it comes to crashes has no universal definition, since it's up to law enforcement to determine based on the circumstances and road conditions. A PennDot report defined the term as "any reportable crash in which speed was listed as a contributing factor, whether or not the driver was noted as going over the posted speed limit." The agency says speed was the primary factor in 304 traffic deaths in Pennsylvania last year.

Walker, an Ann Arbor, Mich., resident who said he has been studying the science of speed limits for more than 50 years and has worked with the Michigan State Police to set limits, argues that speed limits in general — especially on highways — are set below the natural flow of traffic and that drivers exceed limits that are not realistic. He said speed limits should be raised to match the flow. (Federal transportation agencies disagree.)

The last speeding ticket Walker got, he said, was for driving 60 mph along a 55-mph highway. That was in 1995. Now, the speed limit on that road is 70 mph.

And despite advances in technology, radar is not foolproof and subject to human error, the National Motorists Association says.

Then there's the money.

A speeding violation in Pennsylvania means a fine of at least $35, a number that balloons depending on the road, how fast the car is traveling, and other fees. The state, counties, and municipalities share money collected from fines.

Skeptical advocates say catching speeders is less about safety than municipal coffers.

If speed enforcement is not about making money, said James Sikorski Jr., the Pennsylvania advocate of the National Motorists Association who lives outside Wilkes-Barre, why not skip the fines and give automatic points on driver's licenses to speeders?

Rothman told attendees at a Transportation Committee hearing in April that "we certainly heard stories in other places where radar is being used to generate income for the local municipality."

His bill, which mirrors a companion measure passed almost unanimously by the Senate, would cap the fine money municipalities could keep, but it is light on specifics on how that would work.

Its fate is unclear. Steve Miskin, House GOP spokesman, said there's "no consensus" yet on the radar issue and legislators are focused this month on resolving the state budget.

Rothman cited the passing of a transportation bill Wednesday by the House that allows speed cameras on Roosevelt Boulevard and elsewhere as a sign legislators are willing to support other electronic speeding deterrents. Rothman said speed cameras are as controversial in the House as radar.

"What we're trying to do is change people's behavior," Rothman said. "In the end, we want less tickets."

And though there was once a rumor, decades ago, that state troopers didn't want local police to use radar, they're now on board. Capt. Beth Readler, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Pennsylvania State Police, told the House Transportation Committee that troopers are in favor of letting the locals use the technology.

Rothman's measure calls for a six-month radar pilot program for full-time officers in full-time, state accredited departments. About 11 percent of Pennsylvania's roughly 1,100 local police departments are accredited, such as in Bensalem Township, Cheltenham Township, and Philadelphia.

The bill also calls for local police to limit tickets to drivers traveling at least 10 mph over the posted speed and to install road signs alerting drivers radar is in use. Rothman is hopeful reluctant colleagues will come around.

"People just don't like getting speeding tickets," he said. "Who does?"