June 13, 2016

Is a long-denied tool finally on the radar for local police in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania is only state that prohibits municipal officers from using radar

The majority of complaints fielded by Upper Darby Police Superintendent Mike Chitwood from residents involve traffic violations – speeding, running red lights and rolling through stop signs.

"Everybody is in a hurry," Chitwood said. "Everybody drives like it's the last day of their life. I'm a cyclist. I see it early in the morning. Nobody stops for a stop sign."

Chitwood has long advocated for permitting municipal police officers to use radar guns to ticket speeding motorists. But Pennsylvania remains the only state that forbids municipal police from using the technology, limiting its use to state troopers.

It's a policy that Chitwood and many others say makes little sense.

A pair of state Senate bills would expand its use, but similar legislation has failed to gain traction in the past.

"The first (opposing) argument is this is a way for small communities to make money, to fund their budget," Chitwood said. "I don't buy that, but that's one of the issues. The second one is that state police don't want to give up control."

Upper Darby police can establish speed traps utilizing radar, but a state trooper must operate the radar gun. Municipal police are tasked with stopping motorists and writing citations. Chitwood said it's an operation that extracts thousands of dollars from his police overtime budget.

That high cost limits the frequency of the speed traps, Chitwood said, and in turn enables motorists to continue speeding down suburban roads.

Upper Darby police teamed with a state trooper on Wednesday to cite speedsters traveling northbound on Township Line Road, a street that carries a 35 mph speed limit. In four hours, they issued 71 speeding tickets, Chitwood said. And that came with a 15 mph grace window.

"That's crazy," Chitwood said. "That's absolutely insane."

Speeding, of course, is not an issue isolated to Upper Darby.

Across Pennsylvania, 1,200 people died in automotive crashes in 2015, according to PennDOT. That marked just five more than the record low set in 2014. But of that total, 302 deaths were speed-related. Another 345 were related to alcohol.

The 127,127 crashes last year marked the highest total in the last five years, though speed-related deaths have declined each year since the 371 recorded in 2012.

Radar proponents say expanding the technology can improve road safety. Two Senate bills would do just that.

Senate Bill 535, introduced by Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny County, would grant any municipal police department the ability to use radar. Senate Bill 559, introduced by Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, would expand its use to city departments like Philadelphia.

Both bills were reported out of committee in May.


'A REALLY BAD TREND'

The Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia has rallied in support of both bills, though spokesman Randy LoBasso said its priority is ensuring Philadelphia police have access to radar.

"I think we are in the midst of a traffic crash epidemic," LoBasso said. "We've seen a lot more crashes. Pedestrian crashes are actually going up, which is a really bad trend. We had nine bicyclists killed last year."

Philadelphia recorded 11,544 crashes in 2015, its highest total in the last five years, according to PennDOT. Ninety-four people died, a slight decline from the 97 killed in 2014. Pedestrian deaths fell to 26 in 2015, but had risen the four previous years.

The statistics did not include the number of speed-related deaths.

LoBasso said radar will not serve as a panacea to traffic crashes, noting Philadelphia police cannot be everywhere at once. But coupled with other tools, he said it could help reduce those totals.

That's why the Bicycle Coalition also is urging the General Assembly to pass two other bills, including legislation renewing the state's red light camera program through 2027. (It would expire next year.) The other bill would adopt a photo enforcement pilot program on Roosevelt Boulevard to ticket speedsters.

"Roosevelt Boulevard is a horrible place," LoBasso said. "Everybody I know who drives, including me, avoids it at all costs. Based on data the police have given to us, about 10 percent of all traffic deaths in the city occur on Roosevelt Boulevard. That's one road and it's really bad."

Not everyone favors expanding the use of radar. The National Motorists Association advocates doing just the opposite.

Jim Sikorski, the NMA's Pennsylvania advocate, questioned the reliability of the technology, noting some engineers concluded it does not produce accurate and repeatable results. He also said its use promotes predatory behavior by police seeking to raise revenue.

"Radar would encourage the issuance of more tickets, because it is easier and cheaper than some current technology," Sikorski wrote in an email.

To improve road safety, Sikorski said roadways need better engineering, longer sightlines and lengthier yellow lights. He also advocated for higher speed limits, saying low speed limits prompt congestion, tailgating, repeated lane changes and road rage, all of which cause crashes.

"If speeding is such a problem, why are speed limits in other parts of the world very high or unlimited?" Sikorski wrote. "They have better drivers ed, driver testing, better laws, and they enforce good laws."

The next step for lawmakers is examining the two bills and determining which, if any, offers the best path forward, said Nolan Ritchie, executive director of the Senate Transportation Committee. The bills also could be merged into one.

For instance, Rafferty's bill includes provisions to permit law enforcement officers to utilize "lidar," a similar technology that measures speed using light instead of radio waves.

Ritchie said he anticipates strong support for a bill expanding the use of radar. The biggest reason why?

"The most compelling statistic that I've heard is that Pennsylvania is the only state that does not allow this type of technology at the local level," Ritchie said.

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