Police Departments Target Tailgaters

A number of police departments across the country are trying out technology already used in Europe to help catch drivers who follow too close to the car in front of them. Officials believe it's time to crack down on tailgating. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

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Police forces are buying a new type of laser gun to catch drivers who tailgate. This is a handheld device and it works about the same as the lasers police use to catch speeders. But new software means they can now figure out how close two cars are to each other. So let's pull up close to this report from Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL: It's the morning rush hour on a highway overpass in Portland. Police officer Bret Barnum points his laser gun at the traffic below. In less than 30 seconds a VW Beetle appears; he pulls the trigger and the device fires a tiny red beam. Barnum reaches for his radio.

(Soundbite of police radio)

Officer BRET BARNUM (Portland Police Bureau, Portland, Oregon): Okay, Farr(ph), the blue Volkswagen bug following behind the white mini-van.

FODEN-VENCIL: Officer Farr, one of half-dozen motorcycle cops parked at the on-ramp for this operation, drives off in search of the tailgater to hand them a $240 ticket.

Officer BARNUM: Number two lane, blue bug behind the white mini-van, .51. So that vehicle's following behind less than half a second.

FODEN-VENCIL: At 55 miles an hour.

Officer BARNUM: At 55 miles an hour.

FODEN-VENCIL: Barnum says if anything unexpected happened and the white mini-van jammed on its brakes, the driver of the blue bug wouldn't have time to react.

The Portland Police Bureau has just bought two of the new lasers. Other bureaus in Arizona, New Mexico and Tennessee are also adopting the new technology. In Oregon, stopping tailgaters has become a priority. It's the number one factor in traffic accidents there.

But while officers issued 200,000 speeding tickets last year, they only handed out 4,000 for tailgating. Barnum says that's because tailgating is a difficult infraction to prosecute. It relies on personal recollections in court rather than empirical data. But he says not any more.

Officer BARNUM: Not only can we visually see it, but we can actually give the violator, the motoring public, a quantified number. We can say, hey, you're following behind that car in front of you at a half a second. And when I say a half a second, that's what we call a reaction time. Half a second is not acceptable.

FODEN-VENCIL: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends a delay of at least two seconds between cars. How can you tell? Well, pick a stationary object in the road ahead like a sign, then start counting when the car in front passes it - one thousand one, one thousand two. If your car has reached the object before you reach two seconds, then you're too close.

But if safety isn't enough to persuade you to back off, Barnum says a laser detector won't protect you from a tailgating ticket the way radar detectors used to save speeders.

Officer BARNUM: It's not like the old radar where it was constantly emitting a signal. It doesn't emit a signal until I pull my finger on the trigger. So once I do that, then the laser detector goes off, but it's too late.

FODEN-VENCIL: The accuracy of laser guns has been questioned. Tests in the U.K. clocked a wall doing 44 miles an hour and a parked car going 22. Police blame such readings on operator error rather than mechanical problems. But defense lawyers like Lawrence Taylor(ph) say it could be a while before the new device is tested in court.

Mr. LAWRENCE TAYLOR (Attorney): For the average person a $240 ticket is cheaper than even talking to a lawyer about the case, much less hiring scientific experts to raise questions about it. So it's quite possible that the issues regarding scientific validity may not get litigated simply because it's practically too expensive.

FODEN-VENCIL: The $600 device has been used for years in places like Hong Kong and Australia. Police say now it's time the great American driving public learn to back off.

For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland, Oregon.

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