WASHINGTON – Alexander Anneker was zipping around a curve on Interstate 295 in Prince George’s County earlier this fall when a man with a gun suddenly stepped in front of his car.
A startled Anneker did not realize until he sped past that the man was actually a Maryland State Police trooper with a laser gun, the newest weapon in the police battle against speeders. Anneker slowed down as quickly as he could and then had to back up to receive a $70 ticket.
Stories like Anneker’s are likely to become more common now that laser guns, common in state police departments for several years, are gaining popularity with local police departments.
“Pretty much all of us are using this laser system now,” said Officer Derek Baliles, a spokesman for Montgomery County Police. “It’s much more reliable than radar.”
The system, known as lidar, bounces a narrow beam of laser light off a car and measures the distance from the officer and the speed the car is traveling.
Because the beam is so narrow, police said, it lets officers know exactly which car they are targeting and it is harder to detect than standard radar waves. That ability to pinpoint a specific car makes it particularly useful at night when motorists do not expect to run into a speed trap.
And unlike state police, who mainly use lasers during the day, some local police departments are putting the lasers to night use on a regular basis.
Montgomery County has had laser technology, officially called lidar, for about five years, but Baliles said increased training in recent months has led to increased use, especially at night. Several other jurisdictions have either purchased laser guns recently or plan to purchase them soon.
“Even from 1,000 feet away, the beam is only 2 feet wide,” said Baliles, who used a hand-held laser gun regularly when on patrol in Bethesda. “You know definitely by pointing at them which car you’re hitting.”
That narrow focus makes lidar harder for speeders to detect as well.
“By the time a detector makes noise, you’ve already been hit,” said Baliles.
Montgomery County officers take some special precautions when using lidar at night: Officers generally work in teams, set up away from the roadway and wear reflective vests.
But Eric Skrum of the National Motorists Association said laser traps are not only unsafe, but also unfair to drivers.
“Most police departments that are beginning to use it are taking the stance that laser is better than anything, that it is infallible,” Skrum said. “If the officer isn’t aware of the limitations, he may be misusing the equipment.”
Skrum said an officer operating a laser gun could throw off a reading with only a slight movement. Anneker, Maryland’s state chapter coordinator for NMA, said he plans to use that defense at his court hearing in December.
“I don’t see how that reading could have been accurate,” Anneker said. “I was going around a curve, which is one of the worst places to do laser, and I had just left a red light.”
But Wicomico Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Kirk Daugherty agreed with Baliles that lasers are better than other speed enforcement techniques.
“The state has shown them to be much more accurate and more effective,” Daugherty said.