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Municipal Leaders Pushing For Use Of Radar For Local Cops

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
Legislation to allow local police departments to use radar is pending in Harrisburg.

Since 1961, the Pennsylvania State Police have been able to use radar to hand out speeding tickets, but municipal police in the state have been denied the same authority. 

“We trust them with a gun, we trust them with a Taser, we should be able to trust them with a radar gun,” Whitehall Borough Mayor Jim Nowalk said.

Nowalk was among a small, but vocal group that gathered Tuesday in Harrisburg to call on lawmakers to lift the ban. 

Pennsylvania is the only state that does not allow local officers to use radar. Instead, they must rely on tools like vascar, which involves drawing two white lines on the pavement and timing how long it takes a car to get from one to the other.

“Well, obviously you are not going to be able to use that in the snow,” Nowalk said. It’s also impossible to use vascar on hills or around curves, and Nowalk said it rarely works because drivers just step on the breaks when they cross the first white line.

Credit National Highway Transportation Safety Administration
National Highway Transportation Safety Administration
According to NHTSA, Pennsylvania ranks No. 3 in the country for total speeding-related deaths.

Nowalk said Pennsylvania is the most unsafe state when it comes to speeding because of this prohibition. Based on 2013 data, which is the most recent available, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration ranks Pennsylvania as No. 3 in the nation in total deaths linked to speeding (550), and No. 3 in the percentage of traffic deaths related to speeding (45.53 percent). No other state appears in the top five of both lists.

Additionally, the NHTSA said there are more speeding-related fatalities on local streets than there are on any other kind of road, including highways. 

“You want your law enforcement agencies to have the best equipment to protect human life and we need to have this legislation passed,” Nowalk said.

This is not the first time a bill giving local police the power to use radar has come before the state legislature. Peters Township Police Chief Harry Frecht said he has been a cop for more than 40 years and this has been a hot debate for every one of them.

“I don’t know if we have a better chance this time,” Frecht said. “They say we have a good chance, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Similar bills have been shot down year after year, using the same arguments time after time. Topping the list is the concern that municipalities would create speed traps to pad their budgets.

“That is so far from the truth,” Frecht said. “If you would actually look it up and see the kind of money we get out of speeding violations and then take a look at what we have to pay an officer to go to a hearing if that ticket is challenged, there is no way in heck we could make money on these things.”

A municipality receives half of the penalty portion of a speeding ticket, which is $35, plus $2 for every mile over the speed limit, not including a 5-mile-an-hour buffer. 

So, a ticket for doing 50 on a 25-mile-per-hour residential street would net the municipality $37.50.  Mayor Nowalk cited National Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers that peg the pay for the average police officer in the state at $49.95 per hour when you add in benefits. 

“What we’re asking for is to stop these unnecessary deaths on Pennsylvania roadways and give law enforcement the tools that they need to enforce the standards that have been established by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania in regards to motor vehicle speed,” Nowalk said.

The chairs of the state House and Senate transportation committees did not return calls for comment as to the possibility of the bills coming up for a vote. 

The measures being pushed by Nowalk,HB 71 and SB 535, simply lift the prohibition on radar use by municipalities. Other bills in consideration would also add requirements that municipalities report how many tickets they write and how much income is generated. There are also stipulations about testing and training, which is another common argument against the local use of radar. 

Then there is the argument that municipal officers can deter speeding with the tools they already have. Chief Frecht said all of those tools have to be on straight roads and officers are forced to be very visible.

“If they see us, they are going to comply,” Frecht said.  “You can sit there all day if you are visible and nobody is going to speed, it’s going to happen when you are gone.”

Frecht said all he wants is the tools he needs to slow down drivers and protect public safety.