Citizens on radar patrol

     "Cars keep going past my house at 100 mph."

     The complaint is a familiar one. In fact, Keep Kids Alive Drive 25 reports speeding in residential neighborhoods represents the single greatest complaint to police departments — and city council representatives — throughout the United States.

     Often what follows the complaint is a request that an officer catch the speeders on radar and issue speeding tickets. While complainants might think this is a quick fix, they need to realize it's not always feasible, especially in neighborhoods with little traffic.

     While an agency can't send a unit out to run radar on every neighborhood street, the complaint can't (or shouldn't) be ignored. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Speed Campaign Toolkit, nationally in 2005, 86 percent of all speeding-related traffic fatalities occurred on non-Interstate roadways — where the posted speed limits were 55 mph or lower.

     Understanding the seriousness of the speeding problem, law enforcement agencies throughout the nation are enlisting the help of volunteers to run radar.

A community policing tool

     "A citizen radar program is an excellent community-oriented policing tool to establish collaboration between the police and the residents to solve a neighborhood quality-of-life problem," says Chief James Kruger Jr. of the Roselle Police Department in Illinois.

     The name of the Roselle program says a lot: Citizen Assisted Radar Enforcement (C.A.R.E.).

     In citizen radar programs, volunteers monitor vehicle speeds using a department-issued radar unit. The vehicle speed and time are written on a log sheet. In the event a violation is observed, the volunteer will attempt to document the vehicle's description and license plate number. Usually, letters are then mailed to the registered owners advising them of the observed violation. When citizens run radar, they don't issue tickets or appear in court.

     "There's no enforcement, but it sends out a strong message," says Lt. Daniel Furseth of the DeForest Police Department in Wisconsin.

     The programs are educational for everyone. Drivers who are going too fast learn they need to slow down, neighbors often learn that vehicles aren't actually traveling as fast as they thought they were, and police departments learn how to more effectively allocate resources to address speeding problems in their communities.

A negative turned positive

     Before learning about SpeedWatch, a program offered by the DeForest Police Department, a group of neighbors were upset about what they saw as the police department's failure to address a speeding problem. Without first contacting the police department, they vented their frustrations at a village board meeting.

     "It would have been nice if they would have let us know about how they felt, but it was actually a great opportunity," he says.

     For three months, Furseth had the SpeedWatch policy, instructions and log sheet done, and a battery-operated radar gun but no volunteers.

     Leaving the meeting, the residents walked out with these things in hand and smiles on their faces.

     Since DeForest started its SpeedWatch program almost two years ago, Furseth says the chronic complainants have stopped carping. Although participation in the program has been waning recently, overall, DeForest citizens felt good about taking part in their neighborhood's speeding solution. One neighborhood even made a day of sitting in lawn chairs and running radar.

Vendettas not allowed

     In Shoreline, Washington, the Speed Watch Program is part of the Neighborhood Traffic Safety Program (NTSP), which combines engineering, enforcement and educational efforts to address neighborhood traffic safety concerns. Before citizens can participate in the program, the community must obtain seven signatures from neighbors who agree there is a problem.

     "It needs to be clear to us that this is not just one person against another," says Sgt. Kevin Fagerstrom, who recently retired from the Shoreline Police Department.

     After signatures are obtained, city staffs meet with residents to identify their concerns, talk about the NTSP process and work cooperatively with them to select preferred solutions for addressing these concerns. The Speed Watch Program is one of several possible solutions that residents can choose to pursue. Neighbors pick up the radar units, and receive proper training on how to use them, from their neighborhood police center.

     Data collected by citizens will be compared with data collected by a traffic engineer using traffic counters.

     "It's very important that citizens are given proper training to use a radar gun," emphasizes John Marek, an associate traffic engineer in Shoreline. "There are ways to use the radar gun that would give them better results from their efforts."

     Upon borrowing a radar gun, citizens are instructed that the radar gun is to be used strictly for monitoring.

     "They are not in any way to attempt to engage or otherwise influence a violator," Fagerstrom says.

     If a pattern develops as citizens are recording speeding violations, for example, a neighbor goes out three times and sees the same red Corvette speed by, an officer will contact the registered owner and inform him or her that complaints have been filed. The officer also lets the violator know that the police department has a low tolerance for speeding violations observed by officers.

Speed monitoring in Seattle since 1979

     In Seattle, Washington, the Neighborhood Speed Watch program is administered by the Department of Transportation. Programs like these are fairly common in this area, particularly in the suburban cities (including Shoreline and Kirkland), says Luke Korpi, who supervises Seattle's Neighborhood Traffic Engineering section for the Seattle DOT. In some cities near Seattle, the police department administers the program. To maximize resources and encourage a collaborative approach, Korpi advises police departments to develop a close relationship with the city's public works or transportation department.

     Seattle has had a Neighborhood Speed Watch since 1979, and thousands of citizens have participated over the years.

     "We require citizen involvement and make it their responsibility to collect the initial data," he says. "Sometimes, they feel that we should do this for them. Sometimes they have concerns about neighbor retaliation."

     But, Korpi reports there's been no real resistance.

     At one time, Seattle sent letters to the owners of vehicles who were caught speeding but the city no longer does that.

     Citizens running radar on residential streets in Seattle are advised to be discreet. For example, it's common for citizens to sit in their cars and run radar.

     Overall, Korpi estimates Seattle has implemented more than 1,000 neighborhood traffic calming projects citywide (some of which have included the Neighborhood Speed Watch program) and has reduced speeds and collisions as a result.

Making lemonade

     From time to time, residents within a community will disapprove that someone's aiming a radar gun at them — and fire back with a letter or contact the news media.

     "The public can sit in their driveway selling lemonade or do whatever they want for the most part," Furseth argues. "Citizens running radar are just trying to keep the streets safe."

     After a teenager is caught speeding and parents receive a letter informing them the vehicle was observed speeding at this time and location, Furseth says they are usually thankful it was brought to their attention. That, he says, is different than the negative — and defensive — reaction parents have to their teenager coming home with a speeding ticket.

     St. Joseph Police Department in Missouri has not received any complaints since citizens started running radar in their neighborhoods this past June, but many negative comments were posted online in response to a newspaper article.

     When starting up a Neighborhood Speed Watch Program, St. Joseph Sgt. Bill McCammon says, "You need to be sure that all the procedures are set up, that you explain the reasons you are running a program, and you have to be prepared for negative comments."

     So far, McCammon says the program is going well. Citizens are getting involved (there's even a waiting list to use the radar guns) and developing a good working relationship with the police department. In about two months, the department sent out more than 30 letters to owners of vehicles that were caught speeding.

Running radar in school zones

     A common challenge of citizen radar programs is maintaining citizen interest in residential areas.

     In Kirkland, Washington, Sgt. Mike Murray has never seen any neighborhood group participate in the city's Speed Watch program for a long period of time. However, the city has kept three or four volunteers interested in its Speed Watch Program by focusing on school zones.

     "They are pretty much a fixture," he says, describing the senior citizens and one county employee who volunteers during her time off. "The schools expect them to be there. They don't have to be, but for two or three mornings or afternoons a week, they're out in front of a school where kids walk to school, volunteering rain or shine, all school year."

     The volunteers who wear jackets with the police department logo must undergo thorough background checks. After passing a background check, they attend an hour-long basic radar training class, and practice what they've learned for another hour or more in the field.

     When volunteers record speeding violations, Murray issues a warning letter asking the driver to be aware of his or her surroundings, the speed limit and the children walking to school because officers will be in the area issuing speeding citations. He estimates the police department sends out more than 1,000 traffic warning letters per year.

     Occasionally, he says the volunteers will get an earful from someone who is in a hurry and wants to know why his or her license plate is being written down. Other than a driver yelling or waving a finger, the volunteers haven't had problems.

     Overall, he says the school zone speed monitoring has been successful.

     "We don't have as many complaints or crossing guards talking about kids feeling like they were almost getting run over," he says.

Enlisting the help of seniors

     In Eugene, Oregon, the police department offers two radar programs. Citizens who are concerned about speeding in their neighborhoods can check out radar guns from the Crime Prevention Unit after they attend a training session. The Eugene Police Department prefers to have two citizens on duty: one to use the radar gun and another to document details on a radar log. Vehicles traveling more than 10 mph over the speed limit are sent a letter from a volunteer who has been trained to run the plates. If the same vehicle is caught a second time, a second warning letter is sent. The third time a vehicle is caught, the police chief issues a warning letter. And, the fourth time prompts a personal visit from a Traffic Enforcement Unit officer or sergeant.

     Eugene's Seniors on Patrol Program volunteers are often assigned to run radar at a specific location because the Traffic Enforcement Unit sergeant has received a speeding complaint. The Seniors on Patrol Program volunteers are considered part of the police department. They wear volunteer uniforms, drive marked volunteer vehicles and run radar from these vehicles. The procedures they follow are similar to those for the neighborhood program. A sample log and warning letter used by the Seniors on Patrol Program can be found on the national Volunteers in Police Service Web site at www.policevolunteers.org.

Getting the word out

     Informing citizens about a program can pose a challenge for many agencies.

     Carrie Chouinard, the Volunteers in Policing Program coordinator for the Eugene Police Department, says, "It is important that citizens and police personnel are educated about the program and are given program contact information so concerns about the program can be quickly addressed."

     Often neighborhood volunteers find out about a program when they call with a complaint.

     Shoreline keeps citizens informed of its Neighborhood Traffic Safety Program through a city newsletter mailed with every utility bill. Web sites also can advertise a program.

Overall traffic safety

     Sometimes after an educational effort like neighborhood speed monitoring, speeds increase over time and citizens may need to go out with radar guns again. Other times, a different solution may be required.

     In Shoreline, Fagerstrom says for the most part, citizens have been satisfied with portable radar trailers, which stay in one location for a couple days before being rotated. But, portable radar trailers or radar reader boards aren't always the answer or the only answer either. Enforcement may be required.

     Shoreline's NTSP has an annual budget specifically allocated to the police department for traffic enforcement on neighborhood streets. Police officers do this work on overtime, which is helpful because they are able to focus on enforcement for a particular street without being called away for other services. They typically stay at a site for two to four hours regardless of how much traffic they see on the street, and then issue a report on what they observed.

     When a program shifts into the enforcement phase, Fagerstrom points out that invariably, one of the first people stopped is one of the neighbors who had originally complained about speeding and is now embarrassed.

     In fact, most people caught speeding live right in the neighborhood, reports KKAD25.

     Usually, the solution to a speeding problem starts with education and enforcement, but if those efforts don't work, physical devices, such as speed humps or traffic circles, may need to be considered. A neighborhood speed monitoring program is just one tool that can be used to help citizens slow down.

     To agencies looking to set up their own speed monitoring programs, McCammon advises, "Take the aspects of other programs that work for your city and department, and incorporate them into a workable program for your agency."

     Citizens can then realize cars probably aren't zooming by their homes at 100 mph, but they might be going 40 in a 25 mph zone. If they are, that's a problem everyone needs to address.

     Rebecca Kanable has been writing about law enforcement topics for more than a decade. A Wisconsin resident, she can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

What's the big deal? Speeding in residential neighborhoods is 'a big deal'

     When a driver becomes familiar with a street after driving it day after day, he may drive faster than he realizes. It's not unusual for speeders to be clocked in excess of 40 mph (and even 50 mph, on occasion) in 25 mph zones, according to Keep Kids Alive Drive 25 (KKAD25). A driver might be tempted to ask, "What's the big deal?"

     The big deal is speeding extends the distance necessary to stop a vehicle.

     KKAD25 reports that according to NHSTA:

  • At 20 mph, the total stopping distance needed is 69 feet.
  • At 30 mph, the distance needed is 123 feet.
  • At 40 mph, the distance needed is 189 feet — which may not be enough distance and time to avoid hitting an object or pedestrian.

     If a motorist hits a pedestrian:

  • At 20 mph, 5 percent will die.
  • At 30 mph, 45 percent will die.
  • At 40 mph, 85 percent will die.
Keep Kids Alive Drive 25:

     A non-profit organization founded in the summer of 1998, Keep Kids Alive Drive 25 is a safety campaign targeting observance of the residential speed limit. In most towns and cities throughout the United States the residential speed limit is 25 mph.

     Visit www.keepkidsalivedrive25.org for more information.

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