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Radar, Lidar and Other Speed Measuring Devices

Most reckless driving cases in Virginia, involve speeding. Most reckless driving by speed cases in Virginia involve one of three speed measuring techniques: Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging), Radar (Radio Detection and Ranging), or pacing. All three techniques have their weaknesses and all require that an officer follow certain procedures to verify the accuracy of their speed measuring device. Understanding those requirements, how those devices work and what their limitations are is important to many reckless driving defenses.

Tracking History

A “tracking history” is an essential part of the speed enforcement process no matter the type of speed measuring device used. A tracking history is a series of observations an officer makes in order to guarantee the speed measurement was accurate. A proper tracking history has basically three requirements: 1) The officer makes a visual estimation of speed before measuring the target vehicle’s speed; 2) the officer measures the speed of the vehicle continuously and as long as it is both reasonable and safe; 3) The officer checks for potential sources of error.

Lidar (Laser)

Lidar technology is the newest method of measuring a driver’s speed. Lidar guns, or “Laser guns” are handheld devices that police officers point at cars to measure the car’s speed.

Lidar guns measure speed by using a “time-in-flight” method. The device shoots invisible, infrared laser beams one at a time at a rate of about 120-238 beams per second for a least a .3 seconds burst. The device then tracks the time it takes each of the beams to bounce back. The device simply measures how much time each beam spent “in flight” and multiplies the time by the speed of light (983,571,072 feet per second) and divides the product by two to calculate the distance between the gun and the target. Each pulse takes a distance measurement, so the Lidar gun measures the distance between it and the target 120-238 times per second.

The device then measures the change in distance during this distance measuring process and determines the speed of the target. For example, if during a .3 second burst, the target started out at 546 feet and ended at 510 feet away, the device knows the object traveled 36 feet in .3 seconds. This equals 120 feet per second or 81.8 miles per hour (mph).

There are many different types of Lidar units that may be used by Virginia law enforcement officers; however, any Lidar device used by law enforcement must be approved by the Virginia Division of Purchase and Supply (Va DPS). The most common Lidar units used in Virginia are the Pro Laser III and the Prol Lite +. Both devices are manufactured by Kustom Signals. Both devices are required to measure speed within +/- 1 mph in order to be used as evidence in court.

LidarRange

The theoretical range of a handheld Lidar device is well over 2000 feet (aproximately1/3 mile). However, the effective range on Lidar is limited by several things including the beam width in relationship to the targets size, the reflective quality of the target, atmospheric conditions, and the steadiness of the operator’s hand. Range can also be limited when the officer is sending the beam through glass (such as the windshield) or when the lens of the Lidar device becomes dirty or scratched.

The width of Lidar’s infrared beam is usually about .003% of the distance from the gun. Therefore, if a police officer measures a car that is 1,000 feet away, the car is being struck by an infrared circle that is 36 inches in diameter. As the range becomes greater, the beam diameter gets bigger. As the diameter gets bigger, it becomes more and more difficult to measure only one target’s speed at a time and thus range suffers.

Most Lidar devices will not produce a measurement if a significant portion of the beam produces multiple distance readings simultaneously (i.e. half the beam is striking a car and half is over-shooting and striking an object behind the car).

Generally speaking, the range of a Lidar device is limited by the operator not the device. An officer will have trouble continuously holding the beam completely on a moving vehicle that is more than 900 feet away and will have a hard time even identifying the make and model of a vehicle in day light if it is more than 800 feet away. While it is possible to get a measurement beyond these distances, it is much harder for the officer to obtain a legitimate tracking history of the target vehicle in order to guarantee the accuracy of the readings. For this reason some jurisdictions outside of Virginia have created rules against using Lidar beyond 1000 feet.

In order for Lidar to work accurately, a certain percentage of the infrared beams emitted from the device must bounce back. If the beam is not pointed at something that reflects light well or if the object is not perpendicular to the device, then the portion of the beams that bounce back will be reduced and it will take longer for the device to acquire sufficient readings and the effective range will be reduced. Under ideal conditions it usually takes only .3 seconds of measurements for the Lidar device to produce a speed reading but the time it takes to acquire a reading gets longer as conditions worsen.

If not enough beams return to the gun, the Lidar device will not produce a result. Consequently, the police are trained to aim the beam at a car’s flat reflective surfaces, such as the license plate or headlights. Cars with hidden headlights or without a front license plate are harder to measure at distances beyond 700 feet in open air or more than 500 feet when through glass. Other conditions such as weather and the condition of the Lidar lens can affect the range and speed of target acquisition.

Lidar Sweep Error

Movement of the operator’s hand during the measurement process can cause erroneous speed measurements. If a police officer’s hand moves during the measurement process, and the Lidar beam moves from one object to another the difference in distance between the two objects may be read as if they were one object moving. This type of error is referred to as “sweep error.” The greater the distance between the operator and the target the higher the likelihood of sweep error.

A common form of sweep error is when an officer shoots at the windshield of a vehicle and then moves the beam to the front license plate in order to get a stronger signal. The change in distance between the windshield and the license plate may result in a 5-9 mph increase in speed. This phenomenon can be demonstrated by sweeping the Lidar beam rapidly from the windshield to the license plate on a parked vehicle. The stationary vehicle will produce a reading of 5-9 mphs.

Currently there are unsubstantiated reports of sweep error generated by officer’s who are measuring vehicles at a location where the road surface is somewhat perpendicular to the Lidar operator (i.e. shooting at hill or at a banking turn). Sweeping the Lidar beam along the road surfaces at these locations reportedly caused sweep errors of more than 90+ mph without any vehicle being present. The faster the officers tracked the beam along the road the faster the reading on the Lidar device.

Without a proper tracking history an officer cannot rule out the possibility sweep error. Sweep error is more likely where the officer is only taking a quick “snap shot” speed measurement (i.e. taking a single speed measurement instead of continuously measuring the vehicle’s speed over a period of several seconds). Sweep error is also hard to prevent at great distances where it is hard to visually estimate speed and where even slight tremors in the hands can result in rapid changes in the location of the beam.

Lidar Sight Misalignment

Law enforcement officers aim Lidar devices with a digital heads-up display (HUD) that contains cross hairs and a digital screen which can display speed, distance, and an estimated beam location. The HUD on any Lidar device should never be magnified (most are not). This is because magnification makes the device more difficult to use at close ranges and distorts the officer’s ability to visually estimate the vehicle’s speed, an essential component of verifying that a Lidar device is functioning correctly.

When an officer measures an object, the HUD generates a red circle over the general location of where the beam struck the target. The cross hairs and this red circle are the only indication of where the very narrow (and invisible) Lidar beam is being directed.

Like the site on a gun, the HUD can become misaligned. Dropping or mishandling a Lidar device can cause the HUD to aim inaccurately. If undetected or ignored, an error in the HUD can result in an officer attributing a speed measurement to the wrong driver (i.e pointing the gun at one car while measuring another car).

To prevent sight misalignment, an officer should perform a vertical and horizontal sight alignment test at the beginning and end of each shift. This will guarantee that the sights were functioning properly during the traffic enforcement period.

Lidar Calibration

Every 6 months all Lidar devices should be sent to the manufacture’s laboratory to be tested for accuracy. Additionally, at the beginning and end of each shift the officer should test the Lidar device in several ways.

First the officer, runs a “self-diagnosis”. The officer will visually verify that all portions of the LCD screen are functioning and that the results of the self-diagnosis are positive. Then the officer measures a known distance with the Lidar device and verifies that it is working accurately. Then the officer tests the HUD to guarantee that the sites are properly aligned. Proper calibration is essential to proper speed enforcement and failure to comply with these calibration requirements is the most common way of defeating a Lidar based reckless driving case.

Radar

Radar technology is arguably the most common speed enforcement device in Virginia. Unlike Lidar, which is essentially “point and shoot,” using Radar requires significant training and experience to produce reliable results.

All Radar units consist of a counting unit, the display, and at least one antenna. In handheld Radar guns all three components are contained inside a single gun-shaped body. However, most Radar units in Virginia are not handheld portable units. They are mounted inside police cruisers. The Radar antennas are usually mounted on the front and back dashboards of police cruisers, the counting unit is usually mounted in the dashboard or center console, and the display (if separate from the counting unit) is also on the dashboard.

In Virginia, modern police Radar emits a continuous wave (instead of pulses). This continuous emission of microwaves spreads out at an angle of approximately 12 degrees for a distance of over 4,000 feet (or until it strikes an object).

The microwaves continuously bounce off of all objects within the beam’s path and return to the Radar unit to be detected. Moving objects cause shifts in the returning microwaves’ frequency (Doppler shifts). The more distorted the return frequency, the higher the speed of the target.

Objects moving toward the Radar unit cause the frequency of the Radar beam to rise while objects moving away cause the Radar frequency to fall (this phenomenon is the same phenomenon that makes an approaching car sound higher and a receding car to sound lower). Thus, by measuring the rise or fall of the Doppler frequency, the Radar unit can calculate the relative speed and relative direction of any object within the scope of its beam.

When a police cruiser is moving, the Radar unit is put into moving-mode and measures the cruiser’s speed by measuring the relative speed of the ground in front of the cruiser. The unit’s computer then takes the cruiser’s speed and adds it to or subtracts it from the relative speed of the target object depending on whether the object is moving away from or towards the cruiser.

Some moving-mode Radar units require the cruiser to be moving above a given minimum speed (usually around 20 mph) or require the target object to be moving above a certain minimum relative speed in order to give an accurate reading (usually more than 3 mph; i.e. the cruiser and the target car cannot be going within 3 mph of each other).

Because moving Radar requires the device to accurately measure the speed of the cruiser and the speed of the target vehicle there is more potential for error. In order to verify the accuracy of moving Radar, an officer must verify the Radar’s perceived ground speed against a calibrated speedometer at the time of measurement while simultaneously estimating the target vehicle’s speed. A proper tracking history is very important.

Moving Radar

Most Radar devices can be used while the officer’s cruiser is stationary or moving. In moving mode the Radar device must measure the cruiser’s ground speed as well at the relative speed of the target vehicle. Most Radar devices accomplish this by using two different Radar frequencies. One frequency measures the speed of all moving objects within the Radar’s beam and the second frequency is dedicated to measuring the relative speed of the ground directly in front of the police cruiser. The small portion of the Radar beam dedicated to measuring ground speed in front of a cruiser is called the “hot spot”. Most of the moving mode Radar errors are caused by interference to the hot spot.

Moving Cosine Error

All Radar and Lidar devices are designed to measure the speed of an object that is either traveling directly towards the speed measuring device or directly away from the speed measuring device. Any time the target vehicle is moving at an angle to the speed measuring device the measured speed will be lower than the actual speed. In stationary mode, this error benefits drivers.

However, in moving mode, if cosine error affects the ground speed measurements then the target vehicle’s measured speed may be higher than the target vehicle’s actual speed. If the police cruiser is near large reflective objects (such as road signs) or if the road is reflective (such as when it is wet or icy) the hot spot may lock onto a stationary object that is not directly in front of the cruiser. The greater the angle between the cruiser and the object the greater the cosine error will be. The greater the cosine error the lower the ground speed measurement will be. Cosine error is a major cause of erroneously high speed readings in moving mode.

Shadowing

When a Radar device is operating in moving mode, any error that affects the Radar’s ground speed measurement also affects the accuracy of the overall speed measurement process. When the hot spot (the portion of the beam dedicated to measuring ground speed) locks onto a moving object it creates an error called shadowing.

When the hot spot locks onto a moving object the relative speed of the moving object and the cruiser is lower than the ground speed of the cruiser. The lower ground speed will always cause an erroneously high target speed reading when the target vehicle is moving in the opposite direction from the cruiser, and may sometimes cause a higher speed reading when they are moving in the same direction.

Target Identification Error

The biggest problem with any Radar unit is that it detects and measures any and all objects in the beam’s path but only displays one or two speed results per antenna (depending on the make, model and operating mode of the device). The Radar unit will display only the speed of the strongest signal it receives and/or the fastest speed it receives.

The strength of the signal has to do with the target vehicle’s size, distance, material make-up and the target vehicle’s location within the Radar beam.

After a Radar unit displays the speed of an object, it is up to the police officer to decide which of the objects around the cruiser is responsible for the speed on the Radar’s display. .

In order to avoid target identification error, an officer should implement a complete tracking history. This means that the officer should:

1)  Visually estimate the target vehicle’s speed prior to the vehicle entering the Radar beam

2)  Note the change in the Radar’s readings when the vehicle enters the beams

3)  Verify that his visual estimation and the Radar reading are reasonably similar

4)  Observe the vehicle’s readings throughout its time within the beam

5)  Listen for a continuous high audio signal from the Radar (a sign that the signal is not due to radio frequency interference or harmonic signal interference)

6)  Note a corresponding change in readings when the vehicle exits the beam.

Error From Rapid Changes in Speed

Accelerating or decelerating more than one mph every .1 – 2.0 second can cause some Radar units (depending on the model and age of the unit) to be unable to track an object. This same weakness can affect the Radar’s ability to track the cruiser’s ground speed. If either the police cruiser or the target car are rapidly accelerating or decelerating, the Radar may have trouble tracking speed accurately.

If the cruiser decelerates rapidly while measuring a vehicle that is traveling in the same direction or if the cruiser accelerates rapidly while measuring a vehicle that is going the opposite direction, this phenomenon may cause a higher than normal speed reading. A proper tracking history which includes comparing the Radar ground speed against a calibrated speedometer will help expose this error.

Harmonic Errors

Harmonics can significantly affect speed readings. Large targets, such as trucks or reflective road signs close to the Radar or target vehicle can create echoes. Echoes occur when a Radar wave strikes the target vehicle before or after it bounces off a nearby object(s) and returns to the Radar unit. In such a case, the Radar signal bounces off multiple moving objects and returns to the Radar unit excessively distorted, generating erroneous speed readings. These erroneous readings can be higher or lower than reality depending on the relative direction of the moving objects.

Auto Locking

The Radar auto lock feature can also cause problems. Certain older units are designed to display speed measurements only when a tracked object is traveling above a certain speed. When such a unit detects an object going above that speed, an alarm sounds and the device will not display anything but that tracked speed until it is reset.

This feature is problematic because a fluke signal that causes a high reading for only a split second will trigger the auto lock and any driver appearing to speed nearby will be blamed. Auto lock makes a proper tracking history impossible.

Many law enforcement agencies around the country have banned the use of this function. Devices that auto-lock as their default setting are not approved for use in Virginia. In Virginia, most speed measuring devices will lock only when the officer presses a button. However, manually locking a speed prior to establishing a complete tracking history is not much better than auto locking.

Radio Frequency Interference

Radio frequency interference from substations, power antennas, and the two-way radios common in police cruisers can also cause random readings. Motion sensors, garage door openers, and obstruction detectors on heavy equipment and on the tail of some high-end SUVs can also cause erroneous readings. The electrical equipment in a cruiser and along the highways can also generate signals that may alter speed readings.

Radio frequency interference (RFI) usually comes into play only when either 1) the officer has set up a speed trap next to a strong RFI source (e.g. under power lines), 2) the officer’s Radar unit power source has been wired using wires without RFI shielding or 3) the Radar unit’s antenna wiring is bundled too closely to wires carrying RFI sources (e.g. a stereo power source, CB radio power source, antenna, etc.). A proper tracking history will usually allow an officer to detect RFI interference.

Improper Radar Antenna Mounting

The moving blades of a cruiser AC or heater fan can produce a Radar signal of about approximately 15-45 mph. This is because most Radar antennas are mounted on the dashboard near fan vents.

A Radar antenna should be securely fastened to the dashboard and never point across the Radar’s counting unit or across fan vents. Fan vents or the counting unit can cause “ghost readings”, especially when no other stronger signals are around. Proper mounting and proper tracking history will help identify false readings caused by these types of error. An officer should also test for these errors by pointing the antennas along a deserted road, turning on the fan and turning up the Radar’s sensitivity. If a false signal is produced the mountings should be examined.

Weather Error

Weather conditions such as temperature, precipitation, and humidity can affect the range of Radar and produce sporadic false readings. This is phenomenon is particularly likely when there is water, ice, or snow covering the road and the officer is operating the Radar in moving mode or in a place where harmonic signal interference is likely.

For this and other reasons, the Virginia State Police are trained not to operate Radar when it is raining or snowing. As always, a proper tracking history is essential to prevent this error.

Radar Calibration

Officers are trained to calibrate their Radar device at the beginning and end of each shift. The device is calibrated by using tuning forks. The tuning forks are calibrated every 6 months to produce a frequency that is equal to the Doppler frequency of a vehicle moving at a specific speed (usually 35 or 65 mph).

The officer places the Radar unit in test mode and strikes the tuning fork and places it inches away from the Radar antenna and verifies that the Radar device is producing a speed measurement that is within one mph of the tuning fork’s calibrated speed.

If using the Radar in moving mode then the officer must use both tuning forks simultaneously and then again separately to perform the calibrations. Each device should be assigned its own specific set of tuning forks. Because different devices may use different Radar frequencies, the tuning forks from different devices may not be interchangeable.

Every 6 months, officers are required to have their tuning forks calibrated for accuracy. This is done at private and government laboratories within the state. Each tuning fork must be accurate to within 1 mph and the Radar unit must match the tuning fork to within 1 mph. Consequently, the tolerance for a Radar unit is 2 mph when in stationary mode and 3 mph in moving mode. (In moving mode the target speed is the sum of the Radar’s ground speed and relative target speed which further expands the tolerance by 1 mph.)

Radar Detectors

The use or possession of any devices used to thwart electronic measurement of speed by law enforcement is illegal in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In Virginia, some law enforcement departments have Radar detector detectors and officers sometimes patrol with these devices in order to find and ticket people who are using Radar detectors.

Just having a Radar detector in the car is enough to violate Virginia law, and the prosecution does not have to prove that the device was functional. The only way a person in Virginia can have a Radar detector in the car and not be fined is if the device was not connected to a power source and was not readily accessible to anyone. The penalty for having a Radar detector is about $140. Sometimes, however, mere possession of a Radar detector is used to justify a more severe punishment for a driver charged with reckless driving by speed

Pacing

Pacing is the simplest way of measuring speed. The police officer simply keeps pace with the target car. The officer then testifies that he was keeping a steady distance from target car and what the speed on his own speedometer was at the time.

What many drivers do not understand is that an officer can pace a target car that is in front, to the side, or behind a police cruiser. Some officers will even pace a car that is on a highway from a parallel access road. Typically, the officer tailgates the target car either directly behind or one lane to the right of the back bumper.

Sometimes, when a car pulls up behind a police cruiser, the officer will gradually speed up to see how fast the driver is willing to go. After baiting the driver into speeding, the officer will pull the driver over.

In order to use pacing in court, a police officer must have had the cruiser’s speedometer calibrated recently (usually no more than six months before the date of the offense). Speedometer calibrations are done either by testing the cruiser’s speedometer against a dashboard mounted Radar unit’s ground speed measurements or by using a dynamometer.

Common pacing errors come from the officer not pacing for a sufficient amount of time, speeding up to catch up with a target vehicle but not decelerating completely prior to beginning the pace, attempting to pace a car that is accelerating or decelerating, attempting to pace a car that is changing lanes or separated by other traffic, or pacing from too far away. Once again, a proper tracking history is essential for an officer to avoid pacing errors.

If pacing in a different lane than the target vehicle, an officer cannot will not be able to get an accurate reading on a curve. The cruiser will need to be going faster than the target car if it is on the outside of a curve or drive slower if it is on the inside. A driver should contact a reckless driving attorney immediately if paced on a curve by an officer not directly behind the car.

VASCAR

VASCAR, is an electronic stop watch system attached to the speedometer that assists in pacing. VASCAR reads the speedometer of the cruiser and uses stop watch data provided by the officer to calculate the distance between the target vehicle and the moving (or stationary) police cruiser at two points along the road. By verifying the distance of a target vehicle at two different points the officer can pace at greater distances and can even pace traffic going in the opposite direction. To be used in a trial, the VASCAR system and the speedometer must have been calibrated within the last 6 months and the VASCAR system must be physically attached to the cruiser’s speedometer cable.

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