For over 50 years, local police departments across Pennsylvania have not been allowed to use radar guns to enforce speeding within municipalities. Pennsylvania is the only state in the country which does not allow local police to use radar or lidar technology; the privilege has been reserved exclusively for the Pennsylvania State Police since 1961. While the Pennsylvania Senate has been trying to change this policy for years, it has seen little success or support from the Pennsylvania House until this past year.
Senate Bill 251 (“SB 251”), which would overturn the existing legislation reserving the use of radar to state police, passed the Senate voting 47-3 in its favor. Now, however, the bill has been sitting in the House Transportation Committee ever since. This may soon change. House Bill 2148 (“HB 2148”) serves as a supplemental modification to the original Senate Bill that House members believe will give it a better chance of passing.
Original SB 251 gave municipal police departments the ability to use radar technology to catch and enforce speeding violations within the township without having to enlist the state police to patrol residential roads. The bill capped the revenue that municipalities could get from speeding tickets at 20% of the total municipal budget as an anti-abuse provision. Any excess over the 20% would go to the state. The main concern and opposition with allowing local police to use radar is the potential for municipalities to use speeding tickets as an alternative source of funding, rather than using it to keep individuals safe on the roads. Since speeding tickets are expensive, opponents fear that drivers will fall prey to overzealous municipal police looking to raise more money for their municipality.
The House shares similar concerns. HB 2148 severely restricts the use of radar for local police, setting the following prerequisites for local police to have access to the technology: (1) only full-time police officers who are part of an accredited police force (of which there are around 117 of the 1,100 in the state) and have completed training, renewable every three years, will be allowed to use radar; (2) officers must be in marked cars that are visible to the public along the road; (3) roads entering the municipality must be marked with signs indicating that radar will be used to enforce speed limits; (4) drivers cannot be ticketed unless they are travelling more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit; (5) the portion of revenue which a municipality gets from speeding tickets must fall below 1% of its total revenue, otherwise drivers cannot be prosecuted; (6) municipalities must pass an ordinance to allow their police force to use radar; (7) local police can only use radar once citizens have complained about speeding on a specific road or once police can show speeding-related traffic concerns for a given road; (8) municipalities cannot set quotas for speeding tickets; and (9) municipalities must complete an annual report to PennDOT, which, in turn, must complete an annual report for the legislature.
The House Bill also includes a sunset provision, meaning that the bill, if it becomes law, would be up for renewal by the legislature after six years. Essentially, the law would merely be a trial run allowing municipal police officers to use radar or lidar technology. HB 2148’s proponents believe that the modifications to the SB 251 are necessary to get the bill to pass the House. Proponents would rather see some municipal police forces get access to the technology than maintain the status quo.
Currently, local police can use VASCAR—a system that involves timing how long it takes for a vehicle to pass between two marked points on the road. The technology often requires multiple officers on site to track speeds and then apprehend the offenders thereafter. Other options include bringing state police to the road in question for their radar capabilities or using visual inspection to track how fast individuals are going. These options often present opportunity for abuse by drivers since any non-radar speed traps are difficult to prove and enforce when challenged—hence the push for better technology at the local level.
Local police officers also have the backing of the state police force to get access to radar. Captain Beth Readler, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Pennsylvania State Police, told the House Transportation Committee that troopers are in favor of letting local police forces use radar technology. Despite the apparent police consensus, the obvious need for technological updates, and the support from the Senate, the House is still on the fence about passing the bill. Additionally, even if the House Bill does pass, it would be costly for municipalities to implement, especially with the restrictions on its use. While the Senate and local police are hopeful that this bill will be the one to finally align Pennsylvania with the rest of the country concerning local police radar use, it remains to be seen whether the House’s pattern of steadfast resistance will win out again. In the interim, municipalities may want to wait until the House casts its votes before investing in ordinance development or radar technology.
This article was written with contribution from Sarah Rothermel, 3rd year law student at Widener Law Commonwealth.