State police radar

State police Trooper Scott Kovach uses radar to calculate speeds of vehicles traveling on Route 219 in Somerset County in May 2015. Tribune-Democrat file photo

HARRISBURG – Lead-foots beware.

Harrisburg may finally drop a ban stopping local police from pointing radar guns to catch speeders.

Pennsylvania is the only state that bars local police from using radar for speeding tickets, but legislation to change that is moving again at the Capitol.

A local radar bill passed the state Senate 47-3 last October, but time ran out before it was taken up by the House.

That doesn’t suggest insurmountable opposition, said James Nowalk, mayor of Whitehall Borough in Allegheny County. As president of the Pennsylvania State Mayors’ Association, he helps lead a push to put radar in the hands of local cops.

“This legislative session is a different story,” he said.

Lawmakers long have been loathe to lift the radar ban, out of concern that cities and boroughs would use it to pad their coffers instead of making streets safer, said Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Allegheny.

Readshaw’s repeatedly offered legislation to arm cops with radar, and he said the efforts of the mayors and other groups seems to have softened the resistance.

Readshaw said he’s gotten no blowback from constituents since announcing his continued support to drop the ban.

Earlier this month, the Senate transportation committee unanimously approved a new version of the radar bill, setting it up for quick action before the full Senate.

Under Pennsylvania law, only state police can use radar. Local police are left to cobble together speed enforcement with other equipment, such as electronic, non-radar to determine a car’s speed based on how quickly it passes a pair of infrared beams.

In other cases, officers paint lines on a road and use timers to establish how fast a car is going.

Areas patrolled by local police can include busy roadways where speed enforcement is necessary but hard to do safely, said Rep. Lynda Culver, R-Northumberland, a member of the House Transportation Committee.

Since state police patrol many rural jurisdictions, radar is already in use, said Culver, who noted that she’s talked to local officials interested in getting radar. She’s convinced their effort is motivated by an interest in safety.

J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf, said Thursday the governor “appreciates the need for radar technology for certain municipal police forces and will give thoughtful consideration” to any bill passed by the Legislature.

Only Texas and California had more speed-related road deaths in 2014, according to an analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In both of those states, speeding was blamed for a smaller share of total road deaths than in Pennsylvania, where 509 of 1,195 traffic deaths were blamed on speeding.

“We have the worst record for speeding fatalities,” said Nowalk. “It’s a record we want to eliminate.”

Culver said she’s heard suggestions that the bill include controls to ensure that speed traps are placed only in areas where safety is a worry.

One approach could involve banning radar on roads where traffic volume is below a set minimum, she said.

“I think we’re getting good feedback,” she said.

The idea “has more traction than ever. It’s going to be interesting,” she added.

The legislation already has safeguards, Nowalk said, including a requirement that communities post signs warning motorists that radar may be in use. It also says that for the first three months that radar is being used, police can only issue warnings to speeders.

The bill also requires police to give drivers a 10 mph cushion before writing a ticket.

And if a community’s police department gets too ticket-happy, the state will take a cut of the proceeds.

Ticket revenue under the proposal can provide no more than 20 percent of the municipal budget. Any amount over that goes to Harrisburg.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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