How to Spot Highway Speeders

Police officers have a quiver-full of tools to track and catch highway speeders, ranging from the simplest and oldest methods to the most technologically advanced automated systems.

But a new survey from the Governors Highway Safety Association finds that 42 states allow drivers to exceed posted speed limits of up to 10 mph before pulling them over for speeding.

Association Chairman Jim Champagne says such speed "cushions" create an unsafe comfort level for high-speed -- and illegal -- antics on U.S. roadways.

He and other experts say U.S. police agencies already have most of the necessary tools to enforce speed limits.

Speeders in the Crosshairs

By far, the most prevalent means of catching speeders hasn't changed much since the early days when U.S. drivers first began hitting the road: the infamous "speed trap."

But where 20th century highway patrol officers used to rely solely on their own eyes to determine a car's speed on the road, today's police have more sophisticated ways to tell if a motorist is going over the posted speed limit.

So-called radar guns are probably one of the well-known tools of the speed enforcement trade. Either mounted in police vehicles or held in an officer's hand, the "guns" emit pulses of invisible radio waves that can be "aimed" at suspected speeders. The gun determines the actual speed of the targeted car by timing how long it takes the radar waves to strike the car and bounce back.

The decreasing cost of electronics has made radar guns affordable and prevalent, and has made its successor -- the laser gun -- a viable alternative for many more police agencies.

By using invisible laser beams instead of radio waves, laser speed guns are quicker and less prone to interference from other sources of radio emissions.

Undetectable Eyes in the Skies

Still, as many repeat offenders can attest to, there are ways of detecting -- and, arguably, defeating -- speed limit enforcement tools. Thousands of lead-footed drivers, for example, wouldn't dream of hitting the road without their radar and laser detectors to warn them of approaching hidden police speed traps.

While several states have laws against the use of such devices, to defeat speeders armed with detectors some highway agencies have gone back to a simpler form of clandestine speed detection: the nontechnical eyeball.

Simple markings on the roads, visible to police observers in helicopters or light airplanes, define a set distance -- say, a quarter of a mile. If a car takes 15 seconds to cover that distance, the vehicle is traveling roughly a mile per minute -- or 60 mph. Police officers in the air can then radio patrol cars to intercept any car that goes significantly faster.

Attitude and Aptitude Adjustment

While such tricks of the trade for highway "Smokies" are well tried and tested, experts note that such methods are labor intensive. And as more police officers are tasked with anti-terrorism and homeland security duties, enforcing speed limits hasn't become a high priority despite the dangerous rise in high-speed accidents and deaths.

"The attitude toward speeding today is the same attitude we had toward drinking and driving 30 years ago. It's just not seen as a big deal," says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. "Everyone does it, but in fact, excessive speed is a factor in the deaths of 1,000 people on our roads every month."

Rader and other safety experts believe that to cut down on the high-speed fatalities, state and local police agencies should turn to a new set of automated speed enforcement tools.

Smile, You're on Candid Speed-Cam

One tool that has caught safety experts' attention is the so-called "speed camera." These cameras are similar to the "red-light cameras" used at roadway intersections at over 100 U.S. cities.

A laser or radar gun measures the speed of an approaching car. If it's above a set margin -- say, 10 mph above the posted limit -- the gun triggers an attached digital camera to snap a photo of the car's license plate. Using vehicle registration records, a speeding summons is then mailed to the car's registered owner.

According to Rader, such automated systems have proven effective overseas. In Australia, the number of speed violators was cut in half within the first three months of 1989 when such cameras were installed on its roadways.

Other automated systems that can be put to speed duty include electronic toll collection schemes. Since such toll systems automatically log when and where a driver's car enters and exits a freeway, it can easily provide a vehicle's speed information to highway police.

Don't Bother Big Brother

Although such automated speed monitoring systems are technically feasible, experts such as Rader note that the United States has been slow to adopt them to the nation's roadways.

"In the U.S , there isn't the political will to crack down on speeding," says Rader. "Speeding is not seen as a big safety problem."

Also besetting the implementation of such automated technology are concerns over privacy and potential abuse by authorities. Critics of red-light cameras, for example, question if such devices actually deter drivers from running red traffic lights -- or, are merely a way for cities to raise much needed funds.

Still, Rader believes that such issues will be ironed out. Already, he believes, the privacy issues are non-starters.

Privacy "is not an issue because we're not talking about general surveillance, we're talking about ticketing people who break the law," he says. "Generally, the courts have not found that there is a privacy issues [with traffic cameras]. There is no expectation of privacy when operating a vehicle on a public road."