Some of the restrictions that long prevented the California Highway Patrol from using radar to enforce speed limits are beginning to crumble. Already more than half of the CHP's cruisers carry radar units, and as early as next year, the rest will too.
The CHP in the last year has begun using radar enforcement on some of the most heavily traveled freeways throughout the Los Angeles area, including the 5, 405, 605, 60, 10, 101 and 14 freeways.
The early results show why the CHP's new program is bound to have a major effect on freeways across the state. On Interstate 5 and I-15 alone, the CHP has issued about 22,000 speeding citations based on radar-calculated speeds since the start of the year, says Sgt. Brent Shultz, supervisor of the agency's traffic radar program.
With the CHP's high-visibility enforcement effort, average speeds have dropped significantly on those two freeways. A 1997 survey in Newhall showed that 85% of drivers were going 73 mph or faster. After the radar enforcement program was initiated, the 85th-percentile speed had dropped to 66 mph in the 65-mph zone, according to a study conducted in March.
"CHP will do more radar enforcement as it gains more equipment," Shultz said. "As we look at the population, we have had about a 25% increase in the number of miles traveled. Radar is one of those things that make us more efficient."
Although radar has long been a staple of traffic enforcement in the rest of the U.S., California chose to be different. The CHP was never explicitly barred by law from using radar on freeways, but the Legislature never provided money to buy the equipment and, under a long-standing agreement with the governor's office, the CHP did not use it.
The Legislature, allied with the trucking industry and other interest groups opposed to traffic enforcement, was the driving force behind the absence of radar. That began to change last year after new concerns arose about extreme speeding well beyond the 65-mph limit.
At the same time, the CHP began using federal grant money to buy radar units. Moving on delicate political ground, the agency sought and obtained a broad political consensus for using radar, according to CHP spokeswoman Margaret Magner.
The Highway Patrol now has equipped 61% of its 2,100 black-and-white cruisers with radar, and it could have all of them equipped as early as next year. The plan also calls for the CHP to equip its motorcycles.
Despite this new enforcement effort, the agency continues to face some of the nation's toughest restrictions on using radar off the freeway, owing to long-standing California laws on "speed traps."
Although everybody associates the CHP with freeways, it has a far larger role in patrolling county roads. The agency is responsible for 14,139 miles of interstates but 88,950 miles of county roads. That includes major business thoroughfares and residential neighborhoods in all unincorporated areas of the state.
It is in these areas that the CHP still faces tight restrictions on radar use because of a ban on "speed traps" as defined in the California Vehicle Code. What's a speed trap? Under the code, just about anything that guarantees speeders will be caught.
"No evidence as to the speed of a vehicle upon a highway shall be admitted in any court upon the trial of any person in any prosecution under this code upon a charge involving the speed of a vehicle when the evidence is based upon or obtained from or by the maintenance or use of a speed trap," the code states.
The vehicle code generally bars the use, for example, of radar (or stopwatches) to measure speeders unless certain conditions are met, including the conducting of a traffic engineering study to make sure the speed limits are not set too low for a road. As a result, communities face the risk of either having a lower speed limit that the CHP cannot enforce or an engineering study that would recommend even higher speed limits.
Residential streets are supposed to be fair game for radar, but the code defines residential streets in a way that exempts many places where people actually live. The CHP is forbidden, for example, to use radar on any residential street that is more than 40 feet wide, that is interrupted by a stop sign in an interval of less than a quarter-mile or that has more than two lanes (bike lanes automatically make it a four-lane street).
It appears that these onerous restrictions may be slowly dissolving. In the last year, laws governing radar use on county roads have twice been amended to relax restrictions.
The changes are coming against this grim backdrop: More than 15,000 California pedestrians are hit every year, either killed or injured. The state has one of the highest rates of pedestrian deaths in the nation. And roughly 60% of pedestrian fatalities involve children younger than 16.
Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.