Virtually all radar citations come when single motorists are on open stretches of highway, with no other vehicles nearby.
State troopers using Doppler radar guns are not supposed to issue citations when more than one vehicle is in the unit's range, which can be hundreds of feet wide at a distance of 1,000 feet. So many motorists are aware they'll be cited for speeding only when isolated, resulting in a perverse motivation to go fast only when moving adjacent to other vehicles.
There is a solution. Laser units (light detection and ranging, or LIDAR) can pinpoint a single vehicle in traffic with a beam that is just 3 feet wide at 1,000 feet.
Radar does not enhance safety; it tends to encourage faster driving in traffic. The goal of radar is not to save lives; the goal is to raise revenue, and that is why Pennsylvania politicians have not pushed hard for a switch to LIDAR.
Now Pennsylvania has a new proposal, already adopted in other states, to allow another form of technology to nab motorists who go through red lights.
When the "red-light camera" plan was ballyhooed, the first words out of politicians' mouths were that it's expected to raise an extra $30 million a year for various government authorities to play with.
Legislation to allow the cameras at intersections in specified cities, including all three in the Lehigh Valley, passed the state Senate last month by a lopsided vote (35 to 14) and is now before the House.
Senate Bill 595 provides for automated cameras to record when a vehicle goes through a red light and then the owner is sent a citation carrying a $100 fine.
This week, there was a provocative challenge issued by the National Motorists Association, which fiercely opposes the red-light cameras. The NMA offered to pay any community $10,000 if it could meet a three-part challenge.
First, wherever there is a camera-monitored intersection that has numerous red-light violations, the NMA offered to guarantee a 50 percent reduction in those violations by applying "engineering solutions" to improve intersection safety.
Second, if that 50 percent reduction is not met, the NMA will fork over the $10,000. Third, if the NMA idea does work, the community must use the engineering-based measures and scrap the cameras.
"The NMA maintains that sound traffic engineering principles are the most effective way to prevent violations and accidents at problematic intersections," the organization said in a press release.
That may be true, but will better and safer engineering cough up $30 million in extra spending cash for government people? Hardly. So I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for any state or municipal official to take the NMA challenge.
When I read through SB 595, there was an intriguing passage in subsection 3116.
It stipulates the distribution of revenue collected from the red-light cameras, with 50 percent going to municipalities with cameras, 50 percent spread around to other municipalities, and 2 percent for the state bureaucracy. (That's the way Bugsy Siegel financed the casino he built in Las Vegas, giving each of his gangster pals shares that added up to more than 100 percent, with unfortunate consequences for Siegel.)
I contacted the office of SB 595's chief sponsor, state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester and Delaware, to ask about that and other issues, but no one got back to me.
Another section of the bill says that no matter who is driving a vehicle when a camera catches it going through a red light, "the owner of the vehicle shall be liable for the penalty imposed … ."
Three pages later, however, the bill provides that "it shall be a defense" if such an owner can prove somebody else was at the wheel at the time of the violation.
That concept — a government requirement for citizens to prove their innocence instead of a requirement for the government to prove guilt — would establish a very dangerous precedent, it seems to me.
This may involve only a picayune traffic beef, but once authorities get their foot in the door by reversing a principle this country has embraced for centuries, there is no telling where it could lead.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.