As highway speeding persists at an alarming rate, with its offenders oblivious to the risk they present for themselves and other drivers, law enforcement officers are steadily adopting laser speed systems to combat it.
For decades, speed radar has been the dominant tool for traffic enforcement. It is still widely used. But as highways have become more traffic clogged, and speeders' ranks have grown, laser devices, also known as LIDAR (light detection and ranging) are filling a growing need to quickly and accurately isolate and cite offenders.
Known for their light weight, quickness, reliability and accuracy, laser speed guns have already helped prevent speed related accidents and fatalities. Yet, judging by speed statistics, lasers still have their work cut out for them.
A nationwide problem
The data for fatal accidents, as provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, show that speed is a contributing factor in about 31 percent of all fatal crashes.
"That's a huge number," says Lowell Porter, vice-chair of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "We're talking about 31 percent of the total number of people who died in 2007 (the most recent year for this data) — 13,040 lives in speed-related crashes around the country."
Is law enforcement making progress with getting speeders to let up on the accelerator? Says Porter: "We're having an impact in certain areas, but overall speed-related crashes are not going down. It's one of those driving behaviors that require a lot of maintenance."
Porter, a former Washington state trooper, has used both radar and LIDAR for nabbing speeders. He feels laser has been highly effective in validating speed offenders in high-density traffic and in training them to go slower.
Meanwhile, LIDAR speed detection technology is advancing. The latest innovation is incorporating video in a laser system to capture speeders red-handed. Lasers with a video camera are expected to make the traffic officer's job easier and more convincing.
This is what Laser Technology Inc. (LTI) of Centennial, Colo., a manufacturer of laser speed enforcement systems, anticipates as it unveils its LTI 20-20 TruCAM tool that integrates LIDAR technology with a digital video camera. TruCAM will keep a complete sequence of video-recorded speeding events, plus create a high-resolution image that identifies vehicle make, model, license plate number, and facial characteristics of the driver.
TruCAM's video camera is a central capability that works with other critical operation features. A Dual Speed Mode can automatically differentiate between cars and commercial vehicles, and apply the correct preset speed limit. And a Distance Between Cars (DBC) Mode can be added to TruCAM for "Following Too Closely" violations. DBC mode measures speed, traveling time and distance between two vehicles.
In addition to being a speed enforcement laser and video camera, TruCAM can feed statistical data into any geographic information system (GIS). The built-in GPS can automatically generate location-based information every time the TruCAM is used.
LTI's CEO David Williams believes the laser with digital video will be well received by law enforcement. "It's the same form factor they're used to — the handheld platform — and they'll gradually get comfortable with having the automated ticketing process and video camera backup," Williams says. Williams also argues courts should be receptive to the TruCAM since more agencies nationwide are using in-car video systems.
Officer Bill Keys of the Ridgecrest (Calif.) Police Department believes the timing for a laser gun that can shoot video of speeders may be just right.
"With the right technology and information, it will get to the point where officers hardly have to testify [when they show video evidence of what took place]," Keys says. "How can you argue with that?"
Keys has been using the P.O.V. (Point of View) 1.5 wearable helmet video camera and system from Marquette, Mich.-based V.I.O. Inc. The system includes a mountable camera head, built-in video recorder, software for managing your point-of-view videos, and a lapel microphone that only picks up voice.
The quality of video image capture is high, says Keys. "You can hear the officer talking directly to the driver, and can hear the driver's statements quite well, too."
Ridgecrest PD is also using a WatchGuard digital in-car video system from WatchGuard Video of Plano, Texas. It records high-resolution digital video in real time onto rewritable DVDs that play in regular DVD players.
"If LTI's TruCAM is comparable to the V.I.O. helmet camera," Keys says, "there will be a lot of agencies wanting to jump on this."
Still in demand
Even though laser speed unit purchases are increasing, radar systems are still on the job in many police departments.
Kustom Signals and Stalker Radar, two other longtime speed enforcement technology makers, offer both radar and laser speed detection systems.
According to Kent Hayes, Kustom Signal's speed products manager, each of the two types of speed detection — radar and LIDAR — have their own legitimate applications, and many officers carry both systems in their car and motorcycles.
"With radar, you can pick up a vehicle well over a mile away," explains Hayes. "And radar puts a wide path of energy (a 12- to 14-degree beam width) down the road. LIDAR'S advantage to radar is that it uses a very narrow width (3 feet wide at 1,000 feet) and LIDAR is target specific."
One of Kustom Signals' most popular offerings is the Raptor RP-1 moving/stationary radar system that tracks multiple targets and graphically displays tracking history for strongest and fastest targets.
In addition, Kustom's new handheld K-Band Falcon HR radar speed enforcement tool is used by traffic motorcycle officers for isolating traffic in one direction. The "K band" is a microwave band of the electromagnetic spectrum, and covers frequencies of 26.5-40GHz.
On the laser side, Kustom's handheld ProLaser III allows for pinpointing targets, identification and complete tracking history, so officers can isolate a single vehicle out of a group. Both Kustom's LaserCam II and LASERwitness digital video systems allow photo and video evidence gathering.
Addressing officer safety
While targeting speeders is the goal, officer safety is always a high priority. That is why Stalker Radar recently introduced its dash-mounted radar: Directional Sensing Radar — DSR 2X. Stalker's DSR 2X can simultaneously measure four target zones in stationary mode, and two target zones in moving mode (conventional radar can only monitor traffic in one target zone).
But equally compelling about the DSR 2X is that it's designed to alert the patrol officer as he or she pulls out into the stream of rear traffic.
"The Rear Traffic Alert can be set by the officer to a certain speed threshold so that it doesn't go off all the time," explains a spokesman for Stalker Radar. "But if there's something closing in really fast and the officer needs to know about it in order to take action, this is what the Rear Traffic Alert is designed for."
Officer Dale Farmer with the Kingsport (Tenn.) PD has been using LTI's laser speed systems since 1997, alongside standard radar tools. He feels LIDAR has made speeders more aware of their offense and more willing to slow down.
"Speeding is a problem," Farmer says, referring to traffic in the Kingsport area. With a population of just over 44,000, Kingsport has several main state routes that narrow from six lanes down to two, and two interstate freeways that cut through the city. "About 80 percent of collisions here are due to speed," Farmer notes. "Using laser systems not only slows people down, but makes them aware of what's going on."
Kingsport PD uses both methods as each helps with speed enforcement in select situations.
"We've found on short distances the radar is easier to use," Farmer explains. "But if we've got a longer distance or a bigger traffic area, the LIDAR works better because you can pinpoint each individual vehicle."
Farmer feels the use of video in speed enforcement laser systems can help officers seal speeding cases shut while teaching offenders valuable lessons. Farmer was invited to serve on LTI's advisory panel for development of the TruCAM product, and his department is awaiting a field test of the new video laser system.
"By having people on video, it takes the guesswork out of it," Farmer says. "We can prove how people are overtaking cars with speeding."
As the war against speeding wages on, it is clear that both radar and LIDAR have defined though separate roles. As the challenge of clamping down on speeders will remain focused on traffic-choked freeways and major roadways, laser's role will only expand.
"Laser has enabled us to do very good speed enforcement in high-density traffic," Porter says. "So, LIDAR has been a big advancement [in speed enforcement]."
Porter also points out that just because police departments are buying more laser systems, LIDAR is not the only tool used. Departments now have a variety of speed enforcement equipment so they can pick and choose in terms of when and where each tool works best.
The latest speed enforcement technology will not be enough to win the speeding war alone, Porter says. There also must be aggressive public awareness campaigns. The familiar "Click-It-or-Ticket" seat belt campaign has been a good example for how speed enforcement must be handled regardless of what technology is used.
Porter adds: "The Click-It model showed us that if you build effective communications tools and back it up with strict enforcement, the two combined become like a force multiplier."
Bob Galvin is an Oregon-based freelance writer specializing in public safety topics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Of course, whatever speed enforcement equipment is on a police department's wish list, it all costs money. Luckily various funding sources are available to help with agencies find funding for equipment purchases.
Lowell Porter, vice-chair of the Governors Highway Safety Association, recommends the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Highway Safety offices and departments of transportation. "Go to your local highway safety office," he urges. "They know the funding amounts and the sources in their local area."
The Bureau of Justice Assistance information can be found at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bja.
Radar vs. LIDAR: briefly defined
Radar guns direct an electromagnetic (microwave) signal at a specified vehicle, and then pick up the return signal off of the vehicle. Radar measures the frequency of the reflected signal and compares it with the frequency of the original signal to calculate the speed of the target vehicle.
LIDAR (light detection and ranging) devices, on the other hand, use a time/distance calculation to measure speed. When a user aims a laser speed gun's narrow beam of light at the target vehicle, speed is measured by the time it takes to receive the reflected light.