Device to detect tailgating, but could unfairly target truckers

| 12/22/2006

On the surface, a new laser device being used by law enforcement in Arizona and Oregon targets tailgating, a dangerous practice that every motorist and trucker is aware of on a daily basis.

While the lidar device – Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging – is supposed to lead to safer roadways, it could also be used to target truckers, an official with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said.

“My first reaction is ‘great, now they can nail these people tailgating,’ ” said Joe Rajkovacz, regulatory affairs specialist for the national organization that represents more than 147,000 professional truck drivers and companies.

“On second thought, it goes deeper for truckers. This could be something to go after truck drivers because of the fines they can raise.”

Lidar works similar to radar, only instead of radar waves, it uses lasers, giving it a more accurate reading than radar. When an officer aims the lidar device at passing motorists, it records the speeds of two vehicles and calculates their distance apart.

In Arizona, police are using it to enforce the “reasonable and prudent” following distance, recommended at a minimum of 2 seconds.

The fine is $115 for tailgaters following within the 2-second space.

But Rajkovacz says the officer still has to use subjective judgment in making the call on a tailgater, based on a number of factors.

“When you’re in heavy metro traffic flowing at 40-50 mph, are trucks tailgating because they’re keeping with flow of traffic? I guess they are,” he said. “But what are they considering tailgating? What rules are they considering?”

The city of Phoenix is using a grant to implement 27 of the lidar devices.

“It makes it more concrete for the judges and court system,” Police Detective Tim Mason told ABC News. He said offenders are less likely to fight the ticket in court if they know an officer logged the data from the laser device.

But Rajkovacz, a former police officer and professional truck driver, isn’t convinced such a reading would be guaranteed to stand up in court.

“In the use of any device like this, subjectivity of the officer is still very much in play,” Rajkovacz said. “He has to determine that the reading he gets is the vehicle he pulls over. It’s the same problem that happens with any type of radar. Subjectivity is still there.”

He said with the lidar device, it would be a temptation to use it to generate revenue.

“Certain tools can be used in certain regions merely as a revenue generating device,” Rajkovacz said. “It’s like stoplight cameras. The reality is stoplight cameras increase rear-end accidents, so why did they put them there in the first place? It’s revenue.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’d like to see tailgaters get nailed, but you still need the judgment of the officer to say if somebody was tailgating,” Rajkovacz said.

Following too closely is listed as a “deadly sin” that could lead to loss of a CDL, Rajkovacz said. Other CDL deadly sins include reckless driving, speeding 15 mph or more above the speed limit, improper or erratic lane changes and any moving violation relating to a fatal crash.

– By David Tanner, staff writer