The Insider's Guide to Electronic Speed Enforcement Pt. 3: Let There Be Light
Back when Seagulls were flocking, a small electronics company called LTI was in grave danger of going broke. They had but one product: a speed detection device (a.k.a. gun) that used laser light instead of radio waves. LTI’s laser gun was a $3500 item. Police agencies could outfit three patrol cars with state-of-the-art radar detection devices for that kind of money. Laser guns were DOA. And then the lizard people stepped in.
In a brilliant merger of public relations and greed, GEICO bailed out LTI. The insurance company bought LTI’s newfangled laser guns. In ceremonies held in each State nationwide, GEICO donated a few laser systems to the State Police or large local agencies. This produced many, many photos of a GEICO rep giving a high tech laser gun to the head of the local and/or State police agency in many, many newspapers in the many states where GEICO does business.
The handover was accompanied by the usual “speed kills” propaganda. As the nationwide 55mph speed limit was still the federal law, GEICO’s lazy-journalist press release got plenty of play. The PR stunt also put “free samples” of LTI’s laser guns into the hands of the agencies who would have never bought them in the first place. Once the cops gained operational experience with the new gadget, once the revenues started rolling in, laser guns became all the rage.
GEICO also banked big bucks with this initiative. The laser-wielding cops ticketed their policy holders. The resulting insurance surcharges more than paid for the cost of donating the laser guns. Brilliant! Well not entirely, on a whole range of levels.
Laser speed detection is an inherently problematic process. Calibration is the biggest “issue.” When police initially set up and/or test the accuracy of a given radar detection device, they use a tuning fork. This provides external verification that the radar unit is working properly. Police laser guns have no such external testing methodology. In fact, the laser guns use a proprietary algorithm to determine a vehicle’s speed. This they will NOT divulge in Court; apparently, it’s not patentable.
As strange as it sounds, a laser gun can only verify its own accuracy. Courts are not big fans of self-verifying devices, which is why Breathalyzers use an ampule of known alcohol for calibration. Even so, your legal guardians made an exception on your behalf. New Jersey uses other tests to allow a calibration “work around.” Most other states have either passed a law allowing laser readings, or just turn a blind eye to this possible objection.
Over time, police agencies acclimated to laser and made their legislative peace. The guns are now a part of most states' speed detection arsenal. And yet, laser hasn’t replaced radar, for one simple reason: laser is a bitch.
For one thing, laser doesn’t work on the move. Police have grown accustomed to using radar to monitor oncoming or distant traffic to detect and apprehend speeders in the course of other activities. There is no such thing as a patrol car-mounted laser gun; nor can there be, given the necessity of aiming a pinpoint beam of light.
This highlights another limitation: the laser gun’s laser beam must be shot directly at a car's front plate to create a valid reading. So cops can’t stuff their patrol car behind a bush, wait for a hapless/dangerous motorist to go by, and then hit them with a beam (the parallax error in this case underestimates speed). Police can fire the laser gun out of the window of a stationary cruiser, but that’s only in good weather. And anyway, then they’re sitting in a billboard labeled “POLICE.”
Accuracy is another stumbling block. Those of you familiar with handguns know how tough it is to group your shots. Laser is the same way. What’s more, most laser “shots” are initiated as far away from the target vehicle as possible. Most laser sightings are taken from around a thousand feet away (beyond that it is hard to get a reflection without a tripod mount). The beam is small; it’s quite easy to miss an offending vehicle, or, God forbid, mistake one for another. The majority of laser arrests need multiple shots before a reflection can be read, which is why a detector can sometimes save you.
Lastly, laser is also fallible. The guns only work on front plates. On states where front plates are not legally required, many motorists don’t have them (imagine that). Also, as it would be pretty hard to restrict a segment of the light spectrum for police use, most states allow laser jamming; devices which react to a weak laser signal by sending out a stronger one to trick or confuse the police gun.
In short, laser guns are highly effective when used properly, but standard issue radar guns will still be the police officer’s speed detection device of first resort.
More by Casey W. Raskob
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