Keeping up to speed: Local law enforcement officials want radar for speed enforcement

By on March 14, 2018

Municipal radar

In the U.S., only one of the 50 states does not allow local police to use radar to enforce speed limits.

You’re living in it.


Pennsylvania State Police do use radar. But by law, municipal police may not use radar, even though it is much more efficient than the line of sight timing (LOST for the purposes of this report) method employed by most municipal police to catch speeders.

In November of last year, the Pennsylvania Senate passed Senate Bill 251 which would grant municipal police access to radar. It passed with a vote of 46 in favor and three opposed. All three of the nay voters were asked why they voted against the bill, but only Senator Lisa Boscola, a Democrat from Lehigh County responded. The response came from her chief of staff, John Kelly.

Kelly said his boss feels VASCAR and other current methods of speed enforcement are sufficient. Boscola is also concerned that radar in the hands of municipal police would encourage the establishment of speed traps as a way to bolster revenue within municipalities.

It sounds like a reasonable objection to SB 251, a bill which was first introduced in the 2016-2017 legislative session by Senator Randy Valukovich, an Allegheny County Republican. Valukovich is a former police officer who retired as a sergeant after 27 years on the Shaler Township force. Shaler Township is just across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh.

Nate Silcox, a spokesperson for Valukovich, said SB 251 passed the Senate late in the legislative session last year, and there might not have been enough time for the House to take it up. It went to the House much earlier in this 2017-18 session he said, which could bolster its chances for passage. Silcox said he knows of no serious group actually opposed to the radar bill and pooh-poohed the idea of municipal forces using radar to bolster their local governments’ revenues.

“We trust municipal police with firearms,” he said, “there’s no reason not to trust them with radar guns. It’s just silly that radar hasn’t been passed to date.”

So what about the amount of largesse municipal police could add to the treasuries of their cities, boroughs and townships? There is a pie chart in the state’s judicial archives that shows how the money from a traffic citation is split up. The chart uses the example of a $25 fine, to which costs have been added. Most of the money collected from a traffic ticket goes to the state.The chart is a little out of date. It shows a $10 charge for the state judicial computer system, but that charge is now $22.

The total current levy for a $25 traffic fine with all the costs added is $145. The lowest speeding fine we could find on a PennDOT informational chart was $45 for going 35 mph in a 25 mph zone. That would push the total ticket cost to $165. The fine for going 71 in a 65 mph zone is actually 50 cents less — $44.50 — but 35 in a 25 is a more likely violation in a municipality.

For a speeding ticket with a $45 fine plus costs, the municipality gets half the fine and none of the added costs. That means the municipality gets $22.50 for a typical speeding ticket, or 13.6 percent of the motorist’s out-of-pocket cost.

Although it would take a near impossible number of speeding fines to make a major dent in most municipality budgets, SB 251 provides a means to throttle back on the local money that can be generated. If a municipality somehow manages to generate more than 20 percent of its annual revenue from its share of speeding fines, SB 251 would have the excess over 20 percent go directly to the state treasury.

How much work and resources go into generating that $22.50 for a simple speeding fine? To find out, this reporter tagged along with Akron Police Chief Tom Zell on a recent morning as he headed out for a speed enforcement dry run. With a civilian in the car, he said he wasn’t going to chase anybody, but he’d show us the process. The chief is a highly-trained professional, with 33 years on the force, making a comfortable living, and he rolls in a late model vehicle decked out with state-of-the-art electronics and other implements of law enforcement.

At $22.50 per ticket, it should be immediately apparent that speeders are never going to fund the cost of law enforcement. The reason he and his officers write speeding tickets, he said, is to get people to stop speeding through and within the borough.

As chief, Zell’s duties are mostly administrative, but with only a five-officer force, he takes frequent turns in the cruiser. His favorite spot for speed duty is on Fulton Street near its intersection with Rothsville Road. It’s a two-fer spot. Looking through the windshield, he can check cars on Rothsville Road and, in his mirror, he can see cars coming down Fulton Street.

He focused on Rothsville Road, where the speed limit is 40 mph. From his vantage point, he could see two white lines painted across the road. The lines are exactly 180 feet apart. A car traveling at 40 mph travels 58 feet per second and takes 3.07 seconds to go 180 feet.

A car going 60 covers 88 feet per second and takes just 2.04 seconds on his way to a speeding ticket.

Zell timed the cars going from Rothsville towards Kmart with a Robic 808 stopwatch. As a car’s front tire hit the line on the Rothsville side, he pushed the start button on the stopwatch. When it hit the second line he hit the stop button. The Robic recorded both the time the car took to cover 180 feet and the speed at which it did so.

Speeders have gone to district court to argue that an officer’s reaction time in pushing the button makes the method so inaccurate that it’s worthless as evidence. This has proven to be pretty much a fruitless argument.

Zell said his department has three of the stopwatches. A company stops by every 60 days to check and certify their accuracy. Which means speeders can’t generally win arguments with the stopwatches, either.

That day out, nobody was going 60, but there was a car clocked at 57, the driver of which should probably send this civilian reporter a thank you card.

These white lines painted on Rothsville Road in Akron are exactly 180 feet apart

These white lines painted on Rothsville Road in Akron are exactly 180 feet apart

Had this been a live speed check and Chief Zell had decided to ticket the 57 mph driver, he would have checked his rear view mirror for traffic coming behind him, pulled up to Rothsvile Road, checked that both directions were clear, then taken off in pursuit.

Because he keeps his motor running, his transmission in drive and his foot on the brake, it takes him only about five seconds to go after a speeder. In five seconds at 57 mph, a car travels 83.6 feet per second, so in five seconds it moves 418 feet, which is roughly the distance from the fence behind Ephrata’s War Memorial football field to the fence behind the snack bar to the north.

Which means the speeder is 418 feet away before Zell can even begin his chase. Zell said he seldom catches a speeder before he gets to Kmart.

Trooper James Spencer from the Lancaster Barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police brought his cruiser and his radar gun to the eastern edge of Akron’s Roland Park to show us how he catches speeders. Again, this was a dry run and part of the plan was no chases.

Spencer positioned his cruiser at the northeast corner of the park, in plain sight across from Meadowview Street and pointed his Falcon HR radar gun at cars coming down Main Street — Zwally’s Hill to local oldtimers.

The Falcon has a range of about 1,000 feet. Cars rounded the bend on Main Street just before heading down the hill at a point about 700 feet from where Spencer was standing. There was a lot of slowing down as drivers spotted Spencer’s car and the officer himself, pointing his radar gun in their direction.

If Spencer had spotted a car coming down Zwally’s Hill at 60 mph, covering 88 feet per second, he’d have had a full eight seconds to put down his radar gun, turn on his flashers and, if the driver ignored the flashers, get ready to give chase.

This scenario, Chief Zell believes, is safer for the officer, the driver and the community at large.

While radar and line of sight timing are the most common tools for speed enforcement, they aren’t the only ones. There’s also VASCAR, which is a slightly more sophisticated LOST method. There’s ENRADD, which employs infrared beams of light shooting from one side of a road to the other. As vehicles go past the ENRADD equipment, breaking the light beams, their speeds are recorded.

This chart from Pennsylvania’s judicial system archives show how traffic fine money is split up. Half of the $25 fine portion of the ticket in this example would go to the municipality where the ticket was issued.

This chart from Pennsylvania’s judicial system archives show how traffic fine money is split up. Half of the $25 fine portion of the ticket in this example would go to the municipality where the ticket was issued.

An officer in a vehicle with a calibrated speedometer can also clock a speeder by following him or her for three-tenths of a mile. That method results in two vehicles speeding through the length of five football fields. That technique may work quite well on a country road, but is too dangerous for most neighborhoods.

Nothing works as well as radar, Zell believes, and there’s an army of voices that agree with him.

Chief David Steffen heads the Northern Lancaster County Regional Police. He is a member of the legislative committee for the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. He finds the speed trap argument “…disingenuous and unethical.”

Municipalities are interested in controlling speed, not generating income he said. And if the lawmakers are genuinely concerned about speed trap ripoffs, they should just lower the fines plus costs. “You don’t learn any more from a $300 fine than you do from a $50 fine,” he said.

The two most important components of road safety, Steffen said, are engineering and motorist education. The third component is enforcement.

Chief William Harvey of the Ephrata Police used radar when he began his law enforcement career in Georgia. In 2002, After more than two decades of police work, he left for the chief’s job in the city of Lebanon, and left that post after seven years to head up the Ephrata department.

He thinks Pennsylvania does not take traffic safety seriously enough, citing the number of DUI drivers who still have licenses. Radar would be a big help in keeping drunk drivers off the road.

It also would help deal with the the many complaints his department gets about drivers speeding through neighborhoods. Using LOST to time speeders taking shortcuts through residential neighborhoods is impractical because of the difficulty in finding places for lines

With its instant readouts, radar could make neighborhood enforcement a reality and a constant reminder to speeders.

One factor Harvey didn’t mention, but which is starting to show up in the news, is the fact that smart phones and other GPS devices lead drivers to shortcuts they wouldn’t be aware of if it weren’t for the voices coming from their phones. For example, Google and Waze have been telling drivers to avoid traffic tie ups by taking shortcuts through the residential streets of Leonia, N.J. Just last month, Leonia’s city fathers passed an ordinance calling for $200 fines for non-resident shortcutters, whether they’re speeding or not.

Chief Zell encountered the GPS phenomenon one night recently when an accident closed the northbound lanes of Route 222. Drivers exited at Brownstown and, Zell believes, followed their phones to a right turn on Akron’s Main Street and thence to the aforementioned Zwally’s Hill. There were so many speeders, Zell said, that he gave up the idea of writing tickets. Instead, he parked his cruiser with the lights flashing at the top of the hill.

The tactic worked he said, and when the 222 accident was cleared, Zwally’s Hill became its usual self.

SB 251 is now in the House transportation committee, which is chaired by John Taylor, who represents Philadelphia House District 177. He is serving his 17th term in the House and has said he will not be standing for reelection this year.

Taylor left us a voice mail in which he said his committee would probably hold hearings on the bill, possibly as early as late March. Taylor said House members have been talking to him about the bill. Those members, he said, are responding to contacts from local police within their districts. Taylor seemed to imply in his message that it’s been difficult to muster the votes to get a municipal radar bill passed.

Another call to his office for clarification was not returned.

Representative Mindy Fee, a Republican member of the transportation committee, said she’s been in touch with local police throughout her Lancaster County district, which stretches from just outside Adamstown to the east and Elizabethtown to the west. Her district includes a number of townships plus the boroughs of Denver, Manheim and East Petersburg. She said the police she’s talked to want radar, and she plans to advocate for SB 251 in her committee.

SB 251 has the support of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, 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.

Quite a lineup. The Pennsylvania State Police as a state agency is also officially in support of municipal radar.

The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, though, is officially neutral. That organization’s president, David Kennedy, said in an email to us, “The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association is neutral on the concept but does believe the legislation should be amended to include only full-time police departments.”

In a follow up email seeking clarification, Kennedy declined to comment further.

“SB 251 is at least 40 years overdue,” said Tom Gross, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association in Harrisburg. Gross retired as a captain from the York Area Regional Police Department after a 22-year career in law enforcement.

Denying radar to local police, “…totally defies logic,” Gross said by phone from his Harrisburg office. “Pennsylvania has one of the worst records in the country for crashes.”

A much different stance comes from Jim Sikorski Jr., PA Advovacate for the National Motorists Association.

When asked to summarize NMA’s position on the matter, Sikorski offered the following statements:

“1.Speed limits posted well below the accepted standard of the 85th percentile free-flowing traffic speed. They are targeting the safest drivers. Low speed limits and strict enforcement cause crashes.

  1. Radar makes errors and also cannot tell which car made a reading, if any.
  2. Tickets can be issued barely above the speed limits at +6 mph.
  3. Ticketing is a business. Pull up how many entities get a cut. Make the violations points only, with no money, and see who wants radar.
  4. Speedtraps done where speed limits change, on hills, turns, using unmarked cars, while cars are passing, etc. Why would this be? “

Sikorski also provided a substantial amount of documentation and inforrmation to the reporter.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 1,187 people died in car and truck crashes on Pennsylvania roads in 2016. Only five states — California, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Georgia — suffered more fatalities.

Pennsylvania’s 187 motorcycle fatalities in 2016 made it the fifth deadliest state in that category, behind only California, Florida, Texas and Ohio.

Gross is convinced that municipal radar could help slow traffic down on the state’s often meandering roads.

And that it could save lives.

Dick Wanner is a reporter for The Ephrata Review and the Lititz Record Express.



  1. Joel

    March 16, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    I am glad you had the NMA guy give a few comments. As I recall, maybe 15 years ago or so, the state police were involved in something called Radargate. Guns were not accurate, they seemed to be well aware of it, but did not stop using them. How many bad tickets were issued? I found a link on Google under Radargate Revisited, which goes into detail on this.

  2. James C. Walker

    March 19, 2018 at 2:06 pm

    Radar is used for speed enforcement ONLY in areas where the posted speed limits are less-safely and improperly set well below the safest levels, the 85th percentile speeds of free flowing traffic under good conditions rounded to the nearest 5 mph interval. The typical mis-engineering is to set the limit 10 mph lower than the safest level. Then police write a lot of “10 over” tickets, but most of those tickets go to the safest drivers on the road, the ones with the smallest risks to cause crashes, the ones at or very close to the actual 85th percentile speeds. Radar is used primarily to ticket safe drivers for profits. It is a bad practice that the state police already use radar to ticket mostly safe drivers, there is NO reason to let local police do so.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  3. Stanley

    March 20, 2018 at 10:42 pm

    I am very glad that the truth from the drivers’ point of view got out at the end of the story. That made a lot of sense.

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