The problem with radar traffic enforcement

If you’re like most people, when you get a speeding ticket based on radar you probably think you’ve been caught fair and square so you pay the fine and move on with your life.

But perhaps there was that one time when you were ticketed and you knew, you knew in your heart, that you were not guilty.  There had been a mistake.  Maybe you still paid the fine thinking it would be too much of a hassle to fight it and you’d probably lose anyway.  But you long remember that it was wrong.  Justice was absent.  Truth did not prevail. Maybe this radar thing is not as reliably accurate as you’d always assumed.

Radar encourages the widespread operation of speed traps. Speed traps are designed to target motorists by taking advantage of artificially low speed limits coupled with high traffic volume. Radar allows the police to prey on a larger number of responsible drivers, with no measurable benefit to highway safety. If safety were the goal, policymakers would mandate the proper setting of speed limits according to the 85th percentile standard, which would reduce accident rates and eliminate speed traps.

Radar has an air of infallibility, but in reality, it’s subject to a host of errors making it unreliable for speed enforcement. Most significantly, it cannot distinguish a specific vehicle among a group of vehicles. How can the officer know for sure he’s targeting the right one?  My own experience with an erroneous ticket was on a divided street with a center median. Traffic would normally flow at about 40-45 mph.  The speed limit was posted unreasonably low at 30 mph.  All who regularly use this street know it’s a speed trap and are wary of it.  In my case I could see the cop standing in the street holding his radar gun about 2 blocks ahead.  When I got the green light I proceeded at exactly 30 mph.  To my great surprise I was motioned to the side of the road and told I was clocked at 42mph.  He was filling out the ticket as he approached my car, needing only my drivers license to fill in my name and address.  The whole transaction lasted maybe one minute.  I imagined I could hear the ca-chinging of a cash register as he handed me the ticket.  When I suggested a mistake had occurred I was treated to a forceful rebuke with a suggestion that if I wanted to persist in that, things might get a lot worse. I wisely resisted saying what I was thinking, that this guy could be freed up for real police work if the speed limit were raised, so he might then be a real police officer instead of the armed tax collector city policy makers had made him. This event occurred more than 15 years ago; injustice is memorable.

A wide range of factors can interfere with the radar signal and create incorrect readings. Some of these include power lines, electric substations, trees, bad weather, operator error and even the heater fan inside the police cruiser. In my case it was the radar gun confusing which car it was tracking, and was probably tracking cars going the other direction.  Those drivers were speeding along and might not have seen the cop because of the trees in the median strip.  No one on my side of the street was exceeding the speed limit with a cop practically standing in middle of the roadway. So much for infallibility of police radar.

Radar units must receive routine maintenance and calibration to function properly, and officers must be trained to use the units correctly. Despite what a police officer says on the witness stand, these important requirements are not always met.

Most states provide no mechanisms to limit any of the radar misuses and abuses described above. Radar usually has little oversight or accountability. If radar guns were empty boxes and tickets issued based solely on officer conjecture, it might take years before anyone would discover it.

Pennsylvania is an exception, where local police are not allowed to use radar. Only the Pennsylvania State Police can use it.

I find it hard to find anything good to say about any California law, but there is at least one good one. California Vehicle Code, Section 40802, is known as the “speed trap law.” The law prohibits police from using radar/laser speed detection on any road that hasn’t had a valid speed study completed within a given period of time, usually five years. It also mandates requirements for instrument calibration and officer training/certification. This law applies throughout California except on interstate highways.  It is a defense to a speeding ticket if one can showing the ticket was issued at a defined speed trap.

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