Police Departments Target Tailgaters
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
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: 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)
BRET BARNUM: Okay, Farr(ph), the blue Volkswagen bug following behind the white mini-van.
FODEN: 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.
BARNUM: Number two lane, blue bug behind the white mini-van, .51. So that vehicle's following behind less than half a second.
FODEN: At 55 miles an hour.
BARNUM: At 55 miles an hour.
FODEN: 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.
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: 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.
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: 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.
LAWRENCE TAYLOR: 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: For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland, Oregon.
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