Laser Beams Could Be Newest Weapon In War On Speeders

September 29, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

If you've got a $200 radar detector in your car and you think you'resafe from traffic cops, then you haven't been hit by a laser beam yet.

The latest road weapon against speeding motorists is a laser gun, and county police are one of three Maryland police departments whoare giving the device a trial run pending approval from the courts.

"Unlike radar, which sends out electromagnetic waves, this sends out a beam of light," said Sgt. Lee Goldman, a supervisor in the county traffic enforcement section. "Even the most sophisticated radar detector will be useless against this."

County police have received three of the laser guns thanks to a state highway grant and a donation from Geico Insurance. The guns resemble hand-held movie cameras except for the laser sighting scope, which fits on top.

Unlike radar,a laser beam is virtually undetectable by motorists. The laser also is capable of obtaining a reading whether the vehicle is coming head-on or traveling in the opposite direction. Radar can take only a head-on reading.

The laser also gives an officer an instantaneous reading, in contrast to radar, which takes two to three seconds to estimate a vehicle's speed.

"It's got some very distinct advantages. Theonly way you can detect this is if you wear infra-red glasses, and most people don't have infra-red glasses in their cars," Goldman said."Speeders had better repent or perish."

While the $3,700 price ofthe guns is about twice that of the average police radar unit, it's likely the laser will become widely used across the country. About six months ago, South Carolina became one of the first states to use the guns when it acquired them for its state police.

Police in Howard and Montgomery counties, as well as Maryland state police, will be using the lasers during a test period of about four weeks, ending in late October. During that time, no traffic citations will be issued, police said.

Data from the trial period will be submitted to localand state judges, as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys, who will determine whether the gun's readings would be admissible evidence in court.

The device is still relatively unknown to local defense attorneys, several of whom said they had never heard of the device.

Alan Fishbein, an Ellicott City lawyer specializing in criminal and traffic cases, said his main argument against any electronic speeddetection system is that they appear to violate state statutes aboutrecorded evidence.

The laser and radar guns give an officer a digital readout indicating speed. But once the officer resets the unit, "that information has vanished, never to be seen again. Who's to say he didn't misread it?" Fishbein said.

According to data on the laser gun, "the operator simply aims the gun at the bumper or grille of a vehicle and pulls the trigger, releasing a burst of laser light that bounces from the car back to the unit in a fraction of a second."

Police say the device will cut down on courtroom time for officers.Most challenges to speeding tickets claim that radar cannot distinguish between vehicles, an argument that would no longer be valid with a laser reading.

A demonstration of the device will be made soon to county Bar Association members. County police hope to begin issuingtickets with the laser detection system by late October.

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