Caught in the Act - Vehicle Ops -

Caught in the Act

4 ways to detect speeders



Sgt. Harley Watkins & Sgt. Paul Kotter | From the February 2010 Issue Monday, February 1, 2010

Law Enforcement Officers everywhere eventually find themselves involved in traffic enforcement. Speed detection and enforcement are critical aspects of this duty. Pacing, time/distance formulas, radar and lidar are valuable speed detection tools, but to choose the method your agency will use, you need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each method and know what to look for when selecting equipment.

Observe and Quantify
In general, speed detection and enforcement involve one or more of four general methods. The first two methods require only basic observations and math.

Known as  pacing , the first technique involves following a suspected violator for a reasonable distance at a known speed. The officer then makes a determination of the violator's speed using the patrol car's speedometer. One of the many potential pitfalls of this method is an inaccurate patrol car speedometer. This can be rectified by checking the speedometer against a known distance using a calibrated stopwatch. The officer travels a mile at 60 mph. The officer should travel through the distance in 60 seconds. This test verifies the patrol car speedometer for 60 mph. Some courts will accept this as a reliable citation based on totality of the circumstances; some will not.

The second technique uses a time/distance formula to create a  speed chart . The mathematical formula is:  Speed = Distance/Time

This technique is often used for special project speed enforcement. A known distance is marked on a roadway, (usually 300 feet in a city or 600 feet on a freeway) and a calculation is used to determine speeds of vehicles traveling through the speed zone. For example, using 600 feet for a known distance, if a vehicle travels through the zone in 8 seconds, its speed will be 75 mph (75 mph = 600 feet/8 seconds). The officer must be in a position to observe each vehicle's entry and exit into the speed zone; consistently use the same point on the vehicle to start and stop the stopwatch; and use a calibrated, certified stopwatch for this activity. This type of speed determination isn't accepted in all states. If unsure, check with the prosecuting attorney representing your area.

The third technique is radar. Radar has proved an effective tool in speed detection and enforcement. Many departments have one radar unit per car because the cost of the radar unit is often recovered through citation revenues. Of course, officers don't write speed tickets to generate revenue; they issue speed citations to correct behavior, save lives and detect and deter crime. However, revenue  can cover the cost of basic equipment very quickly if proper laws are passed, agreements are reached and protocols and policies are followed. 

Radar operation has its pros and cons. Advantages include: 

  • Cost:  It's affordable for most departments; 
  • Availability: Departments can 
    easily issue one radar unit per vehicle; and 
  • Multiple mode enforcement:  Radar can effectively capture speed in both the moving and 
    stationary modes.    

The acronym VAR(S) explains what the radar operator must know. The "V" stands for a  visual estimate of the target vehicle's speed. The officer must stay alert and remain in a state of constant vigilance while on duty, which allows the officer to observe traffic and select those target vehicles that are speeding. 

Once the officer has identified the target vehicle and estimated the target vehicle speed, the officer should activate the radar equipment and listen for the Doppler audio pitch - the "A" in the acronym. The Doppler pitch must coincide with the officer's visual estimation. The Doppler audio pitch is more than useful; it's critical in assisting the officer in observation and identification of the target vehicle. 

The next step in proper radar operation is to check the  radar display to verify that it matches the officer's visual estimate of the target vehicle speed and the audio confirmation. These three steps must be taken in every situation in which the officer elects to take action on a speed violator in stationary mode. 

In moving mode, when the officer is actively moving around a patrol area, the officer must add the "S" to complete the VAR(S) process and match the radar patrol display against the  speedometer . At times, the patrol speeds on the radar display are inaccurate due to an angle error, which can result in inaccurate, low Doppler or patrol speed verification. This could reflect negatively on the target vehicle. If there is any discrepancy in any aspect of the VAR(S) process, a citation should  not be issued.

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Sgt. Harley Watkins & Sgt. Paul KotterSgt. Harley Watkins began his law enforcement career with the Blanding (Utah) Police Department. He later transferred to the Utah Highway Patrol, and is currently assigned to Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training where he serves as the State of Utah Drug Recognition Expert State Coordinator, POST physical fitness drill instructor, radar instructor and firearms instructor. Sgt. Watkins has a BA in Criminal Justice. Sgt. Paul Kotter has worked with the Utah Highway Patrol for 13 years. He’s currently assigned to Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training, where he serves as a POST investigator. He is a drug recognition expert, SFST and radar instructor, as well as a polygrapher. Sgt. Kotter is responsible for streamlining the radar/lidar program in Utah and has instructed radar classes to police officers for the last six years. Sgt. Kotter has a BA in Criminal Justice.


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