For a website called TheSpeedTrap, it took me a shamefully long time to think of today’s article idea: How did law enforcement officers enforce speed limits before the advent of Radar in the late 1960’s? If you are immediate thoughts are of a somewhat skewed game of ‘he-said this, you say that’ then you would be pretty close to on the mark. Generally, before the advent of portable radar for police officers, there were three methods for measuring the speed of a particular driver compared to his fellow motorists. These are:
- Dead reckoning.
- Measuring average speed between two points—more commonly known as a Speed Trap.
- Other, niche ways adopted by individual jurisdictions.
If getting sent to court based on an individual’s ‘dead reckoning’ sounds a little less than secure, these were simply the only methods available to law enforcement officers facing this new technology.
There must be law for police to enforce, and in the early days of the automobile, this was generally lacking. In my article on the first speeding ticket I take a more detailed look at early speed-oriented laws for motor vehicles, however the spirit of these early laws can be summed up nicely with the fact that the first motorcars in Britain were required to have ‘a man’ walk ahead with a flag, both as a warning for other traffic, and as a pace for the vehicle. This amounted to around 2mph, which was reduced to 0mph on sighting a horse: it was law that one had to stop upon sight of a horse so as not to frighten it.
It didn’t take long for Walter Arnold of the Arnold Motor Company to put this law to the test, screaming through the countryside on one of his machines at a lightning-quick 8mph. This case of the first speeding ticket issued in the world offers a look at the first wo methods used by officers before the advent of radar; dead reckoning and pacing. For Mr. Arnold, reckoning his speed using ones own judgment was a simple matter for any observer, as there was no flag-bearing paceman in front of his vehicle as the law of the day required.
Pacing Mr. Arnold was another matter altogether. Pacing is the method where an officer follows along behind the suspected speeding perpetrator—presumably unseen—using an onboard speedometer to measure their speed, before signaling the speeder to the side of the road. Before radar, it was not uncommon for police vehicles to be equipped with a device called the Telltale Speedometer, which not only measured the current speed, but also had a second hand along the dial which measured the top speed attained. The logic behind such a device is that an officer could reset it before a pursuit, and be able to use it to point out the top speed attained during said pursuit.
Mr. Arnold’s pursuing officer had none of that, as it was 1896, and he was on a bicycle. Despite that, he allegedly paced Mr. Arnold before signaling him to stop: this implies that not only did he catch up to a racing motor vehicle, he kept pace with it before deciding to overtake it. Neat.
Measuring average speeds between two points using a stopwatch is a method that is still used today, and was the most reliable method before the advent of radar. As the graphic above demonstrates, the method is as simple as knowing how long it takes to travel the distance between two known points and having someone with a vantage of both ends—or multiple people with radios—measuring traffic to make sure they take that time or more. Modern systems may use forms of radar or laser ‘gates’, however before radar a couple of guys with a stop watch would be more common a sight.
Some jurisdictions attempted other, niche approaches to traffic enforcement, which didn’t catch on with others for one reason or another. My personal favorite is one counties hearts and minds approach, as evidenced in the billboard above.
All of the above ‘solutions’ to traffic enforcement have some obvious problems, which has led to their general phase out or refinement to today’s standards. When an officer pulled someone over on their reckoning of their speed, it pitched the officers account of events against the suspects, in a court of law, creating questions of bias towards officers. For the most part, today, an officer’s reckoning of speed can be used to initiate a traffic encounter, but not to enforce charges.
This potential bias was recognized even in the day, and the invention of the Telltale Speedometer was an attempt to offer departments an alternative in the form of measured pacing. However, again, much of the use of the Telltale relied on the officer who was using it. Did he reset it before his pursuit of you, or is that 92mph from a previous event? Did he reach 92mph pursuing you and not pacing you? Generally, it was a case of there being no better options at the time.
Again, drivers and law enforcement officers were not blind to these considerations at the time either, and there were some efforts to apply the Telltale Speedometer in a different fashion. In the August 1923 edition of Time, they discuss a plan tested in Sweden to apply the Telltale Speedometer on a broader front:
“‘Every speeder his own judge’ is the novel means which the Swedish Riksdag, with the help of inventors, has adopted to curb reckless auto-mobiling. Experiments are being conducted with a new recording speedometer which is to indicate not only the number of miles a car has run, but also the rate of speed during any part of the trip. Despite the fact that no recording speedometer has been perfected, the new law makes it compulsory for every car to carry one. This automatic evidence will both acquit the innocent and convict the guilty.”
Again, this was not without its faults, and the widespread adoption of such a Speedometer was never adopted anywhere in the world.
Of all of the methods available to police officers before the advent of radar, measuring the distance between two known points was the most reliable, hardest to contest, and most profitable method available. While it is still used today, in much the same way on a technical level, early users of the speed trap hadn’t yet figured out the proper ethics regarding their use. In some states, particularly Georgia, the reputation of local jurisdictions targeting out-of-state drivers for traffic fines in the name of profit was so extensive, it began to harm the national reputation of the states. As such, many state governments restricted local jurisdictions in their enforcement practices, leaving the power in the highway patrol and the state troopers, who were seen as less profit-driven.
Radar that was usable by police departments started to become usable in 1967. While many drivers may lament the use of such a technology, as they pay their fines under the hard, unwavering enforcement of the radio wave, it is easy to feel grateful for such certainty when looking back at past enforcement methods and practices.
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.