Police invent ways to outwit speeders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland State Police Sgt. Steve L. Aaron was perched 20 feet above U.S. 50 yesterday, blending in with the canopy of trees and telephone wires.

In a truck-mounted crane often called a cherry picker, Aaron had a bird's-eye view of the motorists speeding by.

But they rarely saw the trooper - and that was the point.

By the time drivers realize there's a trooper with a radar gun in the trees, they're being pulled over by other troopers waiting a few hundreds yards from Aaron on the ground.

"I get mistaken as being part of a road crew. They figure I'm out here with the orange truck and I must be fixing the light or something," said the 24-year veteran, assigned to the Easton barracks.

Aaron's mission yesterday was part of a new aggressive traffic enforcement campaign by state police. From his vantage point, he could check speeds of traffic in both directions with a laser unit and shout descriptions of speeding vehicles to officers on both sides of the highway.

The effort is an example of how state police and others nationwide are trying to become more inventive in their approach to catching speeders.

In Alabama, some state police officers are disguising themselves as construction workers. In Virginia, as in Maryland, state police routinely patrol highways in unmarked red Chevrolet Camaros. Maryland troopers have also been known to drive sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

"I guess they've got to do what they have do," said Donald "Moose" Conrad, a longshoreman from Canton stopped for speeding in his Chevrolet Monte Carlo by the Easton crew yesterday afternoon. He was on his way home from visiting his mother in Ocean City.

Using cherry pickers in the fight against speeders isn't a totally new technique for state police. It's just that lately, troopers are using these methods more often to meet goals for increasing traffic patrols set by Col. Edward T. Norris, the Maryland State Police superintendent

"Our methods are only limited by our imagination," said Easton barracks commander Capt. W. F. "Pete" Landon.

Of course, there are plenty of critics of hidden speed traps.

"If their purpose is to write as many tickets as possible and bring in as much revenue as possible, they are succeeding," said Eric Skrum of the National Motorists Association.

"But if they're trying to slow down traffic or encourage people to drive safely on a certain road, being hidden doesn't accomplish that. Studies and common sense tell you that when you're trying to make a road safer, you need police visibility."

Naturally, police disagree and say these techniques help keep motorists aware that an officer could be anywhere at any time.

"In law enforcement, they call it 'omnipresence' - creating the impression that behind every bush and billboard there could be trooper," Landon said.

But Landon and other commanders point out that state police send out plenty of highly visible troopers, too.

During a 12-hour period in mid-August, uniformed troopers saturated the 105 miles along Interstate 95 between Virginia and Delaware, issuing 1,500 tickets and warnings to drivers.

Last month in a similar effort, troopers in Prince George's County stopped 102 vehicles and arrested 25 people accused of driving under the influence.

Over Labor Day weekend, troopers made more than 8,000 traffic stops - four times as many as over the 2002 Labor Day weekend.

"We know there's a direct correlation between increased traffic enforcement and reducing accidents," said Lt. Col. Mark S. Chaney. Stopping motorists for speeding is also a way find potential terrorists and to stop other crimes such as drug trafficking, Chaney said.

Troopers aren't motivated to raise revenue through the traffic fines, Chaney said.

"This isn't about Maryland's budget crisis," he said. "The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that each year, accidents costs the U.S. $230.6 billion."

But Skrum suggests that if too many drivers are speeding, it might be time to raise the limit.

"If you set the limit based on the speed of 85 percent of the drivers, there will be less weaving, less tailgating and a safer flow of traffic," Skrum said.

He'd be a huge hit with drivers on U.S. 50.

The troopers poised just east of the Easton city limit weren't making a lot of fans yesterday.

Even though Bill Teat, who works at a marina in Cambridge, received only a warning from troopers who stopped him in his red Chevrolet Avalanche, he was critical of the tactics.

"I've heard of them doing things like this," he said, although he questioned whether it was safe to pull cars over by walking in the highway to stop them.

Landon said safety is a major concern and that police let several cars go by because there wasn't enough time for the troopers to stop them safely.

And as fast as the troopers could write the tickets, Aaron was spotting drivers going 70 mph to 80 mph in the 55-mph zone that stretches most of the way from the Bay Bridge to the beaches.

"It used to be if you caught someone going 85 mph, it was the talk of the barracks for two weeks," he said. "Now, if you don't catch someone going 85 in a shift, you just weren't looking hard enough."

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