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Speed demons, beware

Police dismiss the term 'speed trap,' concentrate on high-crash areas

Portland police officer Cari Phebus points the device at the front license plate of a brown Ford Taurus hurtling down four-lane U.S. Highway 30.

She pulls the trigger and waits a second as the speed registers: 58 mph in a 35-mph zone. 'Aha!' Phebus says, revving the engine of her Kawasaki 1000 cc. 'Here's the next brain donor.'

She zips her bike out of the Linnton Cafe parking lot, flashes her siren and weaves between log trucks and oil tankers, pulling over the offending vehicle moments later.

'Sometimes they get up to 66, 67, 68,' says Phebus, a motorcycle officer who spends most of her time on such traffic enforcement missions. 'Ninety-nine percent of them are speeding. I wait for the ones that are flying.'

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Motorists exceed speed limits all year long, but these days Ñ spurred on by the warm, dry spring weather Ñ more people are driving faster. And police are watching, especially since the number of traffic deaths and crashes is increasing at a high rate this year.

There's a 400 percent greater chance of being injured or dying in a crash at 70 mph than at 50 mph, says Steve Vitolo, law enforcement program manager for the transportation safety division of the Oregon Department of Transportation.

'Speed is the No. 1 killer, and people just don't understand,' he says.

With increased speed, Vitolo says, drivers have a longer stopping distance and a greater chance of injury or death upon impact Ñ especially since most vehicles are not crash-tested at 70 mph.

Police say 38 people died in vehicle crashes in Portland last year, including three fatalities in the first three months. So far this year, the number of deaths has nearly quadrupled to 11.

As for nonfatal accidents, there were 3,200 last year, with 553 crashes occurring through March. This year that number has climbed to 587, an increase of 6 percent over the same period last year.

With those statistics in mind, police are not cutting speeders any slack.

'We run enforcement missions every morning and afternoon,' says Bob Kauffman, traffic commander. 'The ones we're concerned with are speeding and red-light running.'

Enforcement hot spots Ñ areas proved to have high crash rates Ñ include U.S. Highway 26, from downtown to the Oregon Zoo, and the two freeways and bridges that span the Columbia River: Interstate 5 on the Interstate Bridge, and Interstate 205 over the Glen Jackson Bridge. It is not unheard of for people to exceed 100 mph driving on these hazardous thoroughfares.

Drivers also should be wary of the Terwilliger curves on I-5, south of downtown. Police and transportation officials say this is the most dangerous segment of the freeway that extends from Tijuana, Mexico, to British Columbia.

'Everyone's in a hurry to get where they want to go,' Vitolo says. 'People are going too fast. And any time you have anything but a straight line, you have a better potential for driver error.'

During a recent two-hour mission at the curves, police cited more than 58 drivers who were exceeding 65 mph in a 50 mph zone.

Police insist that they're not trying to nail people, that they're just trying to protect the safety of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists on the road.

'We don't do 'speed traps,' ' Kauffman says. 'We go out to locations where we know lots of people habitually speed. If we have a high number of people violating the speed, then we'll go out and do enforcement.'

New technology works best

The tool of choice in nabbing speeders is called the 'lidar,' an acronym for 'light detection and ranging.' The handheld lidar emits a laser beam of infrared light that is reflected off a front grill, headlight or license plate Ñ anything with a reflective surface.

Unlike the traditional radar gun, lidar works well in congested traffic. An officer can look through the scope, across two or three lanes of traffic, if necessary, and lock in on one vehicle with a red dot.

'Many times we can see them before they see us,' says officer Tom Larson, who teaches a six-hour training course on speed detection at the police academy.

'With radar, we visually estimate the speed. With lidar, it's a lot more foolproof because that red dot is on that vehicle.'

The lidar, which automatically records the driver's speed and the distance on the citation, works up to about 1,000 feet away. Officers typically target vehicles 500 to 800 feet away.

Portland's motorcycle division began using the technology in 1993 and since then has acquired 16 lidar devices through grants. Some traffic officers still use radar guns. Lidars cost around $3,500; a radar gun is about $1,000.

Lidar is being used more nationwide, but its high cost prevents numerous agencies from accumulating as many as they would like.

In places where it is used Ñ the Los Angeles Police Department has 22 such devices Ñ officers say the tool has increased their productivity. It also has created safer working conditions since a longer detection range enables officers to catch offenders with shorter pursuit.

Larson says the superior technology is well worth the cost if it prevents accidents. 'It's just unfortunate because it (the accident) didn't have to happen,' he says.

Follow the money

As anyone who has received a speeding ticket knows, citations are serious business. Most drivers end up paying their tickets; only 15 percent fight their cases in court, and about 5 percent of the cases are overturned.

Fines range from $77 for one to 10 miles over the speed limit, $109 for 11 to 20 miles above and a whopping $295 for 30-plus miles above the posted limit. Truckers can add $40 to the citation.

Yet the notion that police make money off the tickets or have a ticket-writing quota to fill is bogus, Kauffman says.

Under state law, Portland is the only city in Oregon not allowed to operate a municipal court and keep all money generated by traffic tickets. Instead, Portland's tickets are processed by the Multnomah County court system, which divides the proceeds among the state, county and city.

The city has garnered $1.8 million from all traffic tickets through March 13 this fiscal year. It collected $2.5 million last year and $1.9 million in 2000.

Doug Le, a senior financial analyst with the city of Portland, said he attributes the increased revenue to the fact that more tickets are being issued and to the rising price of traffic citations.

The city's portion is deposited in the general fund, some of which goes to the police bureau. But, Kauffman says: 'If we don't write any tickets, we still get the same amount of money from the general fund. There's no incentive for us to go out and write tickets from a financial point of view.'

Contact Jennifer Anderson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..