CHP to use laser technology to nab Hwy. 17 speeders
By Gary Richards
Mercury News

Crashes on Highway 17 are on pace to fall 17 percent from a year ago, and the undermanned California Highway Patrol has added a new tool to crack down on the most dangerous drivers on the windy mountain road -- those who flaunt the 50-mph speed limit.

The CHP has begun using Lidar instead of radar, new units that allow officers to precisely and accurately measure the speed and distance of individual vehicles.

``We're never going to stop speeding,'' CHP officer Jason Butler said today at a Highway 17 safety meeting in Santa Cruz. ``But this helps. We're happy to have it.''

Instead of guessing which car in a pack of several vehicles may be speeding, the device, known as a light detecting and ranging unit, sends a red laser beam onto an oncoming car. The speeder can be in the middle of a pack of cars and his exact speed can be determined in a split second.

That makes it easier for a cop to jump onto the highway, know the exact make, model and color of the speeding vehicle and pull over the culprit.

State troopers need all the help they can get. After 896 crashes were recorded in 1998, the CHP, Caltrans and officials from Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties embarked on an intensive campaign to reduce the carnage on the 18-mile road from Santa Cruz to Los Gatos.

More than $20 million has been spent to upgrade Highway 17, repaving the four-lane road with asphalt that drains better, adding more guardrails, increasing shoulders, widening narrow traffic lanes to 12 feet, posting electronic warning signs and cutting down trees that blocked driver's vision around the toughest curves.

The results have been dramatic. Where there was an average of 250 injuries and fatalities per year on Highway 17 before the safety campaign began, an average of 166 have occurred each year since.