New technology nails tailgaters
It's a Thursday afternoon and Gresham traffic officer Barry Ozeroff is strategically positioned off Northeast 207th Avenue pointing his radar gun at passing motorists heading east on Interstate 84.
'Look at those two cars down there,' Ozeroff says, aiming the laser at the front bumper of one car, then at the front bumper of a blue pickup tailgating it.
According to the reading on his upgraded radar gun, there's just 44.3 feet between the front bumpers. At the truck's speed of 68 mph, the driver would have just over half a second to stop - or barely time to see the brake lights before rear-ending the vehicle.
Now, armed with new measuring equipment, Gresham police hope to curb the little-known offense of following too closely.
More commonly known as tailgating, following too closely is the leading cause of traffic accidents in Gresham and in the state, says Steve Vitolo, law enforcement judicial program manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Nearly a third, or about 13,400 of the 44,878 crashes reported in Oregon during 2005, were rear-end collisions caused by tailgating, Vitolo said.
But thanks to the new measuring technology made by Colorado-based Laser Technology, Inc., police hope to put a dent in those statistics.
By adding a new chip to laser guns already used to nail speeders, the tool now pinpoints the distance between cars in terms of feet and seconds.
Although used for years in Asia, Europe and Australia, the technology wasn't available in the United States until last year when a Clackamas County Sheriff's Office sergeant approached the company about trying it out stateside, Vitolo says.
Oregon became the first state to use the tool, which officers in Gresham, Clackamas, Portland, Salem, Grants Pass and Lane County are now using to take aim at tailgaters. Arizona, New Mexico and Tennessee also have launched trial programs.
In Gresham, three laser guns have been outfitted with the new chip, an upgrade that costs $625 per gun. A fourth gun has yet to be upgraded. State Department of Transportation grants are funding the upgrades.
Before the technology was available, Ozeroff would eyeball cars or use his watch's stopwatch function to cite tailgaters. It wasn't scientific, but when two cars are close enough that one could be towing the other, it's an estimate that stands up pretty well in court, Ozeroff says.
But less experienced traffic officers are sometimes reluctant to issue following-too-closely citations for lack of hard evidence.
'This just makes it much more concrete,' Ozeroff says.
Because it takes about one-and-a-half seconds for people to react to, say, someone slamming on their brakes in front of them, Ozeroff only cites motorists going so fast and/or so close they'd have less than a second to stop.
Ozeroff says he's issued about 50 citations in Gresham since being trained to use the new technology about a month ago and hopes word of the citations spreads. 'The more citizens that we write up for following too closely, the more we reduce it,' he says.
In fact, the number one comment Ozeroff hears from people he cites for tailgating is that they knew it was rude and irritating but didn't realize it was a traffic violation.
As if on cue, a motorcycle speeds by too close to the vehicle ahead of it.
Nile Flickinger, 25, of Gresham, at first thought Ozeroff pulled him over for speeding. Instead, Ozeroff asks the man how many car lengths he thought there were between his bike and the other vehicle.
'Now that I think about it, I was probably too close,' Flickinger says as Ozeroff writes him a ticket - $242 for tailgating and $145 for speeding.
The new tool clocked Flickinger at 75 mph, with only 72.7 feet between his motorcycle and the front bumper of the vehicle in front of him. That means Flickinger had only .66 seconds to stop.
'Don't do it again,' Ozeroff says, handing over the citation. 'Spread the word.'
'I will,' Flickinger says, before taking off on his red Suzuki.