HOW FAST? : Police Using Giant Roadside Speedometer to Flash Drivers a Not-So-Subtle Reminder

Times Staff Writer

So, you say you didn't realize how fast you were going?

From now on, there may be 12-inch-high digital numbers flashing at the roadside to remind you.

In an effort to coax motorists into slowing down, a growing number of Los Angeles-area communities are turning to radar guns that display the speed of passing cars on glowing, trailer-mounted screens parked along city streets.

This is not photo radar, the controversial device used by Pasadena to ticket drivers who speed unwittingly past a camouflaged camera.

It is merely a giant speedometer, police say, a non-threatening sign that slows traffic by showing both the posted speed limit and, in flashing yellow digits, the speed of approaching cars.

"It's so simple," said Sgt. Robert Wilson, head of the traffic division at the sheriff's substation in the City of Industry. "But the thing is, it works. It's amazing that it hasn't been thought of before."

The first such unit in Los Angeles County makes its debut today out of the sheriff's City of Industry station, which covers the City of Industry, La Puente, La Habra Heights, Hacienda Heights and several other unincorporated communities in the San Gabriel Valley.

More than a dozen California cities, including Irvine, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Jose, already have them in use.

Glendale, Torrance, Duarte and Temple City have approved purchase of the 4-by-6-foot trailers, which can be towed by a police car and left on any street corner.

"I really don't think most motorists speed intentionally," said Woodland Police Sgt. Larry Martinez, who developed a prototype of the device in his Sacramento-area community about four years ago. "They're just out there daydreaming. We see this as a gentle but effective reminder."

Of course, should drivers disregard the hint or even choose to race by the device for fun, officers say there's no guarantee that a squad car won't be lying in wait nearby.

"We do have that fear working in our favor," said Deputy Don Blades, a traffic investigator at the City of Industry station. "But, really, enforcement is not the key. It's all about public awareness."

It's also a fairly inexpensive, low-maintenance method to get speeders to slow down, police say. Many commercial devices, which sell for $6,000 to $7,000, are completely self-contained and run on solar power.

City of Industry deputies, who built their own battery-powered unit with the help of local merchants, didn't spend a cent on it. A heavy equipment firm donated an old rusty trailer. A towing yard customized it for free. An electronics store donated the screen. Blades and a few other deputies simply hooked up the wires to a radar gun from an old patrol car.

"There's not a whole lot to it," Blades said.

So far, communities that have had the units in operation give them high marks.

Officers usually tow the trailers to problem thoroughfares and leave them there for anywhere from several hours to a full day. One glance at the screen, they say, and brake lights go on, traffic slows and some drivers clocked at high speeds even look as if they want to shrink in their seats.

"We can't keep up with the demand to place it in everybody's neighborhood," said Livermore Police Capt. Otto Jiuliani, who began using a radar trailer last month. "We only have one. We just can't get it everywhere we want it."

Bill Strickland, president of Mobile Traffic Zone Inc., a Woodland-based firm that has a patent pending on the devices, hopes they will soon be dotting the California landscape.

While some might consider them just another example of Big Brother intruding on motoring freedom, Strickland sees the units as educational tools that encourage voluntary compliance rather than hard-nosed enforcement.

"It's like looking at a big speedometer through your windshield," Strickland said. "You can't say you didn't know how fast you were going . . . and this way you can reprimand yourself."

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