On The Radar: Geistown Chief of police Nick Zakucia

Geistown Chief of police Nick Zakucia uses an Acutrak reader to time drivers through two points along Bedford Street in the borough on Wednesday, May 6, 2015.

The Pennsylvania Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill Tuesday that would permit local police departments to use radar for speed enforcement.

The state House should likewise lift the brakes and allow this important anti-speeding measure to become law.

Finally.

In 2015, we said this in an editorial: “Municipal police and elected officials have been asking the Pennsylvania General Assembly to permit them to run radar for decades. It’s time the lawmakers listen and respond.”

That opinion was formulated through an extensive news project involving CNHI reporters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia that showed that, not only was our state the only one denying radar to municipal departments, but there was no viable reason for that limitation – despite Pennsylvania’s place among the deadliest states for crashes.

At the time, lawmakers claimed municipalities would start using radar-related speeding citations to inflate their budgets.

Local police in 2015 said the concept was ridiculous, and we agreed.

The strongest arguments for allowing radar by local police were and still are accuracy and utility.

Municipal officers employ systems such as Visual Average Speed Computer and Recorder (VASCAR) or the Robic setup, using stopwatches – with higher margins for error than radar. Those systems require more time for setting up and tearing down than employing radar guns, an issue when officers are called away to unrelated emergencies.

As we said in our editorial: “Some local Pennsylvania police even resort to a ridiculous setup with milk jugs posted along the road to reflect headlights of passing vehicles at set intervals.”

But money has been the real sticking point.

The legislation that passed the Senate by a 49-1 vote on Tuesday – and now goes to the House – includes a provision that municipalities could only retain speeding fines at 10% of their local budgets.

Any revenue generated above that 10% threshold would be forwarded to the state to help pay for police training.

Harrisburg has been getting a nice cut all along. As we wrote in 2015, police in Pennsylvania wrote nearly 300,000 speeding tickets in 2014, half of them by municipal officers – but of the $43 million in fines and court fees that year, $33 million went to the state.

Sen. Mario Scavello, a Monroe County Republican, is the prime sponsor of the latest radar bill.

“The use of radar should be viewed as a driver protection which provides the most accurate tool for the enforcement of speed limits,” Scavello told our state government reporter, John Finnerty. “This technology is much more efficient and effective than the dated technology of the past.”

Somerset Borough police Chief Randy Cox had been a member of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association’s legislative committee since the early 1990s when we talked to him about radar in 2015.

He said that although court costs had increased 400% in 40 years, the dollars staying with the municipality were still very low – with $12.50 going to Somerset Borough for each speeding ticket issued.

Our local House members should vote for this bill and push their colleagues to pass the measure, and Gov. Tom Wolf should sign it into law.

“The longest-lasting opposition is the legislature itself, claiming that municipal police will use radar as a revenue-maker,” Cox said in 2015.

“I think it’s offensive to the entire municipal law enforcement community that the legislature, for 40 years, has refused to allow radar use.”

Make that 46 years.

But maybe, finally, in 2021, let’s give local police this important enforcement tool.

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