Speeding is the leading cause of accidents and deaths on highways, which is why it's so important that law enforcement officers employ the best tactics possible to deter drivers from engaging in this risky behavior.
"Speed is an issue everywhere. It's one of those gateway violations that leads to more severe violations like reckless driving," says Master Sergeant Dylan Bryan of the Florida Highway Patrol. This is why he believes strongly in his mission, and that of fellow officers. It's about finding ways to keep people safe.
Officers have several options when determining where to focus speed enforcement efforts. Most individual officers are given the freedom to choose where to patrol based on their experience out on the roads. If they've been clocking excessive speeds or witnessing multiple crashes at one particular intersection recently, for instance, they'll focus their efforts there for a while.
Steve Chauncey spent more than 30 years as an officer in Southern California municipality police departments, and is now a radar laser instructor. He stresses to his students the importance of getting to know their beats from a traffic standpoint. For example, become aware of traffic light patterns to know the stretches where a long line of green lights could easily allow a driver to reach excessive speeds. Every beat is different.
"I also spend time on a lot of secondary highways because the potential for injury is much greater," says Trooper Brandon Uhl of the Montana Highway Patrol. These roads are usually lined with businesses and homes, so it often happens that someone pulling out of an intersection or a driveway who doesn't realize how fast a car is going down the street enters into traffic unsafely, causing a crash.
Officers should of course always be on the lookout for any emerging trends in traffic patterns that could be causing safety issues. And statistics gathered by an agency's analysts can help identify problem areas if they're not readily apparent.
To help do more with fewer resources, Chauncey suggests using volunteers or traffic cadets to verify citizens' complaints about speeding. After a short training session in the use of a radar or lidar speed detection device, they can set up near the disputed spot in an unmarked car to determine if there is a rash of drivers grossly exceeding the posted speed limit. If so, then your agency can put sworn officers in the area to address the problem. If the volunteers find there is not actually a speeding problem in that neighborhood, then you'll know not to waste manpower there. And you won't have wasted it obtaining the information.
Once officers feel their presence is making a positive impact they will move and focus on another hot spot for crashes and traffic infractions. "Hopefully through visibility in that area, the number of crashes will reduce over time. But if they are not decreasing, you have to look at other avenues of what's going on here," Uhl says.
If standard speed enforcement isn't solving the problem, you need to determine the underlying issue. This might require getting the Department of Transportation involved to do road studies and look at traffic patterns.
Maybe what's needed is an awareness campaign, including signs reminding drivers to slow down. Or it could be that the speed limit is set too high or low for a certain stretch of road and needs to be adjusted to alleviate the problem.
Uhl says when he was working in Bozeman, MT, there was a section of highway with a 70mph speed limit that was plagued by rear end and side impact crashes. Adjusting the speed limit down to 55mph successfully decreased the number of crashes there.
When it comes to what you actually do to catch speeders, there are many approaches. All require that you be familiar with the radar or lidar device you are using and that you follow all protocols to use it properly and get accurate speed readings so they will hold up in court.
Chauncey recommends if you're using a laser speed enforcement device to position yourself 1,000 to 1,500 feet away to use it to your best advantage. For a highway, it can work even farther away, he says. "Work from an area where you've got plenty of distance to pick people out and then safely get out after them," he suggests. He used to stand up on a bridge with his motorcycle and train his radar on drivers below.
Where it's allowed, many officers prefer tracking drivers' speeds while driving alongside them. Both Bryan and Uhl employ this technique. They agree it makes it more difficult for drivers to see them. Just be sure that you're not paying so much attention to catching the speeder that you rear end someone else, Chauncey warns.
Teamwork can also be a useful strategy. "The CHP in the past has been very effective at using teams, where one person stands with lidar, and then they'll line several cars up in a row. One will get the speed, then the others will stop the speeders," explains Chauncey. Many drivers who see the cars lined up will slow down, serving to also calm traffic. "It's the speeding version of a DUI checkpoint," he says.
Decoy cars can work to deter speeding, but only for a short while. You have to constantly move them to different locations for them to be effective, and many agencies don't find this worth the hassle.
Once you identify a speeder, take care when deciding where to make the stop. This consideration might include different factors depending on where you patrol. "Being rural, Montana roads are not as improved as major urban areas," Uhl says. He will ask himself, "Is it safe to turn around? Is it worth it to stop people for speeding on this narrow road?"
By the same token, when you stop a vehicle, keep officer safety in mind. You never know who or what you will find inside. It's good to be on the lookout for other infractions to help bolster your case if speeding alone ends up not being enough. But more importantly, maintain situational awareness. "Sometimes we'll hear on traffic stops, 'Why are you messing with me? Why aren't you out catching the real criminals?' Lots are found with traffic infractions," says Bryan.
Agencies use marked cruisers, unmarked cruisers, motorcycles, and aircraft to conduct speed enforcement, although not every department uses them all.
A marked patrol car provides increased visibility, which is a deterrent in and of itself. Most drivers' automatic response to seeing a police cruiser is to slow down just in case they might be going too fast. An unmarked patrol vehicle is not readily visible, which has its own advantages. "I think it's important to have both types of cars in details, because with an unmarked car you're getting the ones with more severe violations," says Bryan.
Motorcycles are more maneuverable than cars, which can allow motor officers to more easily chase speeders if need be. And this vehicle's smaller size allows officers to use more stealth. If a motor officer is set up in a stationary position with a laser several miles down the road, it will be much harder for drivers to see than a marked patrol car.
Florida Highway Patrol officers assigned to the motor division can choose to use a motorcycle or a cruiser each day. So if it's pouring rain, they can keep themselves and their equipment dry in a car. Montana Highway Patrol officers don't have the option of using motorcycles.
Whether on two or four wheels, take-home vehicles increase visibility on the streets and in the neighborhoods where officers live and park their vehicles while off duty. They also enable all Florida Highway Patrol officers to check for speeding on their way to and from work, even administrators. "All of our officers are speed enforcement officers," Bryan says.
His agency's aviation section also participates in speed enforcement. A specialized detail works certain preapproved areas on scheduled dates and times to catch speeders from the air. Special markings on the road are certified by the Department of Transportation as being a particular distance apart. These allow officers in the air to calculate a vehicle's speed. An officer in an aircraft who sees a car moving quickly will start a specially calibrated stopwatch when the car passes one set of lines, then stop it as the car reaches a second set of lines, and the device will calculate the vehicle's speed. If it is in fact a speeding violation, the pilot will instruct officers on the ground to initiate a traffic stop.
Not every vehicle will work for every agency, but each provides officers with a different approach to combat speeding.
Officers aren't out there purely to catch speeders and issue citations. They're out there to educate people about the laws and why it's in their best interest to follow them.
Public safety campaigns can be helpful in this regard. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provides materials to aid agencies' traffic safety efforts, including the High Visibility Enforcement Toolkit and Speeding Toolkit to educate the public and convince them to voluntarily comply with the law.
But individual officers can do a lot simply with their interactions with people, showing that they care about drivers' safety. "We want to change behaviors through education," says Montana Trooper Uhl. "It can be as simple as saying, 'I saw you texting while driving; this is dangerous what you're doing.'"
It can be tempting to issue a citation to someone who gives you grief when only a warning is warranted, but it's not worth it. Remaining extremely professional despite such behavior might even sway the driver to your way of thinking. "Don't issue an attitude ticket. Don't do it out of anger," Uhl cautions. "Just be consistent in what you do."
A separate section of the Florida Highway Patrol is dedicated to handling legislative affairs, including providing officers with summaries of laws soon to take effect. This allows officers to not only educate themselves about any changes to traffic laws, but also the drivers they stop.
Bryan likes to remind his officers of this important component of speed enforcement. "Most drivers we stop for speeding are law-abiding citizens going through their day-to-day duties, and made a mistake. None of us are perfect. We just hope they're safe."