May 21, 2006
Residents aim radar guns at Carmel streets
Police-backed effort lets residents flag speedy scofflaws in residential areas
By Dan McFeely
May 21, 2006
CARMEL, Ind. -- She could be home preparing dinner or planting flowers, but Ruth Stahly is spending the afternoon clocking speeders.
Armed with a police-issued radar gun, she watches as a four-door Honda heads in her direction on Adios Pass. The speed limit here is 25 mph, but a lot of drivers ignore it.
"Thirty-one. Thirty-two. Thirty-three," Stahly says, announcing the gun's digital readout as the Honda approaches.
"I need to stand here to get the plate," says Beth Heck, her partner in community policing.
Stahly and Heck -- stay-at-home moms and part-time community activists -- are recruits in a growing campaign against that ever-constant source of anxiety in America's suburbs: the speeding neighbor.
None of the dozen or so drivers they record going faster than 25 mph will get a ticket. But they will get a friendly letter from the Carmel Police Department, reminding them to slow down in the neighborhood.
Speeding cars are the No. 1 complaint made to police in Carmel, home to subdivisions where moms push strollers, dads walk dogs and kids play on streets.
It's a problem that extends far beyond Carmel, though.
Across the nation, communities from Pasadena, Calif., to Scottsdale, Ariz., suburban Atlanta to Appleton, Wis., have turned to citizen patrols to crack down on speeders.
America's streets can be dangerous to people on foot. An estimated 5,900 pedestrians are killed and 84,000 are injured each year by drivers, according to the National Safety Council.
Carmel's year-old Citizens Speed Monitoring Program is the city's way of allowing neighborhood activists to help police their own streets.
"We have a lot of kids. It's a big neighborhood," said Heck, who heads the 475-home Village of Mount Carmel neighborhood association, one of several in the city that have embraced the program.
"Children are out playing; they're getting on and off the bus. People are jogging. People need to slow down," Heck said.
The program has caught the attention of neighboring police departments in Fishers and Noblesville, which are considering adopting similar programs if Carmel's proves a success.
Not all such programs have worked. In San Jose, Calif., the program was dropped for lack of interest. In Phoenix, the results did not live up to expectations.
And in suburban Atlanta -- where a much more aggressive program included the publication of speeders' names in neighborhood newsletters -- it was effective but was dropped because money ran out.
Also, some legal experts question the wisdom of extending even limited police powers to the public.
"I think it is a little bit offensive," said Indianapolis attorney Will Gooden, whose criminal practice includes defending clients fighting traffic citations. "I just have a general concern about extending the police power. It's sort of a slope you start down. What will regular citizens do next for the police?"
Highway engineers also are not convinced such programs work. Instead, they promote ideas that include shorter streets, wider sidewalks and speed humps to slow traffic.
In Appleton, Wis., however, the neighborhood speed watch program is in its third year, and police officer Anne Strauch says it's working.
"People are driving slower, even myself. Sometimes I get a little heavy-footed," said Strauch, who coordinates 60 community volunteers, about a dozen of whom are trained to use radar guns.
There is no national umbrella group that coordinates neighborhood speed monitoring. But dozens of communities across the nation have tried to address the issue -- each with its own variation of how to make the program work.
In Appleton, for example, the fear that neighbor could turn against neighbor led to a policy that no volunteers are permitted to run radar guns in their own neighborhoods.
In Carmel, there is no such policy. And plenty of familiar faces passed by the radar team this past week.
"Red van going 33," said Stahly. "Blue van, too. Is that Nancy again?"
Heck looked up from her clipboard.
"No, that's Pam. And she knows what we're doing."
This was Stahly's first time manning the radar gun.
"It's OK, as long as nobody gets mad at me," she said. "But, you know, you have to step up. I got involved to help protect my children."
A few blocks away, on Harmony Road, neighbor Liz Bailey was in her yard with her two small children, applauding the efforts.
"We ride our bikes a lot on Adios Pass, and people do drive very fast," Bailey said. "I think it's a great idea."
The atmosphere was not so friendly among neighbors in the mid-1980s in Gwinnett County, Ga., a fast-growing Atlanta suburb that started a similar but more aggressive program.
There, county employees did the speed checks. And instead of sending letters, local volunteers paid personal visits to speeders.
Names of the offenders often were published in the neighborhood newsletter. Some of the worst offenders lost their membership privileges at the neighborhood swim club or tennis club.
"We thought peer pressure would work best," said Joe Womble, a Gwinnett County traffic engineer and planner.
"It worked very well," Womble said. "We had the average speed lowered 13 to 15 miles per hour on the faster streets."
But it also took a lot of time and tax dollars. In 1990, the program was shelved in the midst of a budget crisis. Since then, the Atlanta suburb has used speed humps and other street designs to combat speeders.
It's too late to change the layout of Adios Pass in Carmel. The extra-wide street cuts a winding path through the heart of the Village of Mount Carmel.
"Very rarely is there a day that goes by when I don't write a ticket," said Carmel police officer Trent McIntyre. "Going 20 miles per hour over the speed limit is very common in Carmel."
So far this year, the Carmel Police Department has sent out 35 letters to speeders clocked by their neighbors.
Letters typically are sent to drivers who are going 10 to 20 mph over the posted limit, according to Carmel Police Lt. David Strong, who helps coordinate the program.
With only 15 uniformed officers on duty at any given time, the presence of neighborhood volunteers can make a difference, he said.
Stahly said she plays no favorites as she aims her radar gun down the block. A familiar white vehicle is speeding in her direction.
"Oh, look. He's going 32. The mailman is going 32," she said. "I didn't think they go that fast."
Heck was excited.
"I'll get him. It's a government vehicle. The police like getting them."
Is it a good idea?
We asked some experts what they think about neighborhood "speed watch" programs.
"Any attempt to reduce speeding on our streets is worthwhile. Research shows that enforcement alone does not reduce speeding and other traffic violations; it requires a balance of public education and enforcement."
-- Fishers Police Chief George Kehl
"My only fear is that the people doing the clocking would be setting themselves up for retaliation, and I am sure that would be a fear of many of them."
-- Shirley Purvitis, Crime Watch coordinator, Indianapolis Police Department
"There are always wannabe cops running around, people who lust for the power to lord it over their fellow citizens. This is going to empower them, and it risks turning citizen against citizen. It opens the door to selective enforcement. You don't like the kid down the street? Make him your pet project. Don't like minorities or other population groups? Harass them and drive them out of your neighborhood. . . . It is human nature to abuse power, which is why we have three branches of government and antitrust regulations. There needs to be some kind of accountability by the folks with the radar guns and by the folks selecting who is going to be so empowered. And there is the concern about encouraging citizens to spy on their neighbors."
-- Allan W. Reid, attorney, Indianapolis
"For constitutional purposes, the citizens who use the radar are acting for the government, so I assume you have a form of 'state action,' but there are really no adverse consequences to the citizen, and no rights of a citizen are infringed."
-- Indiana University law Professor Norman Lefstein
"The program taps into the idea that, for most people, it is not just formal legal sanctions, but social norms and shame that shape our behavior and incentivize us to be law-abiding."
-- University of Notre Dame law Professor Rick Garnett
"Seems like today, with the volume of traffic we have, a lot of people are in a hurry or their minds are someplace else. This is something we should consider."
-- Noblesville Police Chief Richard Russell