When it comes to the debate over local radar, silence isn’t golden | Mark O’Keefe

This very important bill needs to be debated in the open — right now, that’s not happening

July 11, 2023 6:30 am

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Maybe it’s me. Or maybe it’s my phone.     

Whatever the reason, I’ve not been able to get public officials to return my calls concerning the status of proposed legislation. It’s the first time in my 55 years in the newspaper business that I’ve run into this problem.

While you might think it’s my problem, it’s also your problem. When lawmakers won’t talk to me, that means they don’t want to talk to you either. How else are you going to get the necessary information to make a decision on any issue?

It’s not that the legislation is particularly controversial.

It involves legislation that would allow municipal police to use radar guns.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the country with such a prohibition. Only state police can use radar guns in Pennsylvania.

Without being able to use radar guns, local police have to resort to speed traps, which are more timely and costly.

The bill has been debated in Harrisburg numerous times over the years. It was passed by the state Senate in 2017 by a 46-3 vote and in 2019 by a 46-3 tally. However, it was never approved by the House of Representatives.     

The measure had been mainly opposed by rural Republican lawmakers who feared local municipalities would use the radar guns to fatten their budgets by installing speed traps.

To ease those concerns, municipalities would only receive $12.50 for speeding tickets.

It had been supported mainly by big-city Democrats and some Republicans, who contended the guns could make local highways safer for both motorists and residents.

It also has gained the support of groups such as the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, the Pennsylvania State Mayors’ Association, and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, the union representing members of the Pennsylvania State Police,

Progress was made when the House Transportation Committee approved a radar bill by a 25-0 vote two years ago.

But the bill never made it to the floor for a vote.

Public officials back then gave me plenty of comments for a Pennsylvania Capital Star story I did on why it never came up for a vote.

Dip in traffic fatalities proves local police don’t need radar | Capital-Star Letters

Jason Gottesman, spokesman for House Republican Caucus said “conversations about the bill are continuing in the caucus, and the bill is still being vetted.”

“This is a major change in the law and we just want to be sure all concerns are addressed,” he added. “We want to do our due diligence.”

Then-state Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, the bill’s prime sponsor, said he was optimistic that the bill would eventually be passed.

“I think the more people know about the bill the more likely it is that they’ll support it,” said Rothman, noting he’s been working on the measure for the past five or six years.

“I think there’s more awareness, especially in the suburbs, about what a problem speeding has become,” said Rothman. “We’re trying to act before a child is hit by a speeding car.”

Mike Carroll, who was the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee at the time, said, “I’ve always been a supporter of allowing local police to use radar, and I still think it will be passed at some point.”

He noted that while most of those opposed to the bill are Republicans, some urban Democratic lawmakers have concerns that the radar could be targeted against Black drivers.

But Carroll said he thinks that as lawmakers become more educated about the bill they will support it. He noted that legislation can become stalled and then move as a result of events that shine a light on a problem.

“Things don’t have to happen just in Harrisburg. Sometimes things can be triggered by events in Aliquippa or Erie,” he added.

However, neither Goettesman, Rothman, nor Carroll returned any phone calls seeking comment for this column. A call to the governor’s office for comment about the issue also wasn’t returned.

Meanwhile, Rothman has gone on to become a state senator and Carroll is the secretary for the state’s Department of Transportation.

There was a story in PennLive/Patriot-News last April 16 about a transportation committee hearing, where Rothman asked Carroll about PennDOT’s stance on the radar issue.

Carroll pointed out that Gov. Josh Shapiro, a former member of the state House from Montgomery County, authored a bill in 2010 to allow local police to use radar.

“I’m glad I aligned with the governor on that bill,” said Carroll. Carroll said the only problem with Rothman’s bill is that it would not permit local police to assign points on a driver’s license for speeding violations while state police can. He said officials are trying to work out a solution to the problem.

Why no one wants to talk about the bill is a mystery. There were no calls to me or my bosses at the Pennsylvania Capital Star about any problems with the story two years ago. 

Now, it’s possible that progress is being made behind the scene and no one wants to say anything that would jeopardize those talks. It’s also possible that it’s been bypassed by more important issues like the budget. Of course it’s also possible that both sides are trying to ditch the bill but don’t want to come out and say that publicly.

But this is a serious issue that should be acted on. At the very least, it should be talked about openly. There’s no need for secrecy about the bill.

Consider that research by the American Automobile Association shows that from 2010-2019, fatalities in urban areas surged 34 percent while those in rural areas fell 10 percent.

In Pennsylvania, most urban streets are patrolled by municipal police while state police mostly patrol rural roads,

“Many urban streets in metropolitan areas are busier, with a mix of road users such as drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Add in speed, and these locations grow more dangerous.”

Those comments make a sound case for local police getting all the help they can get in patrolling their streets, especially the use of radar guns.

However as could have been expected, Andrew Gross, manager of public relations for the AAA and the author of the story, didn’t return my phone call for further comment.

Maybe it is me or my phone.

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Mark O'Keefe
Mark O'Keefe

Opinion contributor Mark O'Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page.