August 27, 2006
Police train volunteers to clock speeders
By PATRICIO G. BALONA
DELAND -- Lead-footed motorists, be on notice: You're being watched. And not just by police.
Citizen volunteers are being trained to use radar guns on city streets where motorists are known to speed.
It's part of a new Neighborhood Traffic Watch program developed by DeLand police. Sixteen graduates of the department's Citizen Police Academy program have volunteered to clock speeds and look for other violations so police can identify problem areas and urge motorists to improve their behavior.
Because volunteers aren't sworn officers, targets aren't ticketed. Instead, suspected speeders receive "courtesy letters" signed by Police Chief Ed Overman urging them to be more careful in the future. The letter states that the incident will not become part of any official record connected to the vehicle or driver.
Overman says it's a painless way to improve driving habits. But not everyone likes the idea. Some letter recipients say they weren't driving their cars when clocked. Others say speed detection should be left to sworn officers.
Sam Masters, president of the Volusia Chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the program is good in that parents may learn that their children driving their cars have been speeding. His only concern is that legal issues may arise if police are keeping a log of the warnings they are sending out to vehicle owners.
"If they are doing it just as a courtesy and there is no record of speeding, then it is OK," Masters said. "If they are cataloging this letter and using them as data, that would be bothersome."
Police Cmdr. Randel Henderson said the letters are not being kept as a record or being used to create a database on the vehicle owners.
"I can assure you that is not happening. Once the letter goes out, it ends there," Henderson said. "It is solely being used to educate the public and ask them to comply with our traffic laws."
Residents in neighborhoods where the volunteers are often seen aiming the radar gun at motorists are relieved to know authorities are taking their concerns about speeding seriously. Jon Roman, who frequently sees the volunteers at the corner of Clara and Plymouth avenues, said their presence does slow down the traffic.
"That is a dangerous intersection. Sometimes all you hear are brakes screeching as someone tries to avoid someone trying to cross over to Clara," Roman said. "It is always nice to know they are being watched."
About 300 letters have been issued since the program started a year ago, Henderson said, to owners of cars seen speeding, running red lights or not coming to complete stops at stop signs. Data generated by volunteers help police decide where to bring their real ticket books, he said.
"What we are looking for is cooperative compliance," Henderson said. "We want to educate before we enforce."
Overman says the letters aren't as intrusive as tickets. "We just want to warn our civilians to be more careful," he said. "Most people are not aware they are doing it."
Yet the program is complicated by the fact that letter recipients are identified only by their license tag numbers. No one is pulled over, and that means letters might be addressed to people who weren't actually driving the speeding vehicles.
"The way it works is that one points the radar gun at the speeding car and two other observers take down the tag number and car description. They then hand us the information," Henderson said.
A recent letter recipient says she wasn't driving her car when it was clocked by the volunteers.
"I think it stinks," said Teanna Moorehead, 42. "I wasn't even driving the car on the day they said they saw it speeding. Anyone could have driven it."
Moorehead said her son drives the car, as well as a friend who uses it for grocery shopping.
Still, Moorehead conceded that since she got the letter from Overman she's been more careful about loaning out her car.
Robert Heller, 83, who also received a letter, said the program's intentions are good but he doesn't like the idea of residents pointing radar guns at drivers.
"I feel like a real policeman should be doing it and, if you are speeding, then they should give you a ticket," Heller said, adding that he was driving under 40 mph in a 35mph zone on a long stretch of road with very few homes when he was spotted.
Chief Overman said the program, modeled after one from out of state, might be the only one of its kind in the area.
"I think it works very well," Overman said. "There is no way to quantify it but we believe that they are noticed and people are less likely to violate the traffic laws."
Did You Know?
Radar is the main method of speed enforcement in the United States.· Radar guns aim an electromagnetic signal at a vehicle and pick up the return signal reflected off the vehicle. The devices measure the frequency of the reflected signal and compare it with the frequency of the original signal to determine the speed of the target vehicle.
· Other technology used by law enforcers to measure vehicle speed includes lasers, cameras, portable computers that calculate how long a vehicle takes to travel a known length of road and light aircraft from which officers can observe how long it takes to travel between pavement markings a known distance apart.
SOURCE: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety