Using Radar Speed Signs to Help Solve Budget and Manpower Issues

By: Lt. Scott Clayton, Marietta Police Department (Retired)

Last July, ABC News reported on the severe shortage of police recruits here in the U.S., where police departments around the country are struggling to fill vacancies. According to The Arizona Republic, the city of Phoenix has begun assigning specialty officers to work on-the-street shifts to fill critical needs in their patrol division. This is on top of a shortage reported in a 2011 article by Reuters featuring the findings from a Justice Department study that illuminated an emerging recruiting and hiring crisis due to economic factors.

Today, more than five years into the making, law enforcement agencies face a challenging truth: there is a shortage of police officers now, and that trend will continue.

Without a correlating decrease in crime (wouldn’t that be nice!), police departments must find ways to maximize the resources they have and plan for the future knowing there will be fewer officers to carry the load. Luckily, technology and process automation are helping. From automated transmission of incident reports to instant access to records, well-equipped patrol cars to schedule-management software, technology makes work more efficient for officers in the field and those in administrative offices. But these can’t close the gap or make up for an unmanned beat.

Strategies that augment or replicate the work of an officer can make a significant and tangible difference.

Traffic calming solutions in the way of radar speed signs offer relief along these lines, because they work with and without an officer’s presence. Also called driver feedback signs, this technology is already being used by public safety and law enforcement agencies around the world for good reasons. These traffic calming devices:

  • Automatically remind drivers to slow down, freeing officers to focus on higher priority activities.
  • Can deliver a return on investment (ROI) in less than one month, so they are very affordable.
  • Have been scientifically proven to be effective.
  • Are well liked by residents and police officers in communities where they are installed.

Let’s have a more in-depth look at each of these.

Reminds Drivers to Slow Down and Make Better Choices
How many times each day do officers need to be in two (or three!) places at one time? From my experience, it happens far too often. So while the presence of an officer on the street cannot be replaced, these signs can stand in for some of the work when officers are called to more urgent situations.

Radar speed signs are often used in conjunction with a speed limit sign, as pictured here, and utilize a small FCC-approved radar to measure how fast cars are traveling. Drivers are alerted to their actual or measured speed through the lighted display portion of the sign. When the feedback display flashes and drivers see that they are speeding, they slow down. And because the huge majority of motorists are good, law-abiding citizens, THIS is all that’s needed to get most drivers to comply with posted speed limits. It seems pretty simple, but it’s far more scientific than you probably realize.

Without getting too complicated, this change in behavior is based on the phenomenon of Feedback Loops, a method of behavioral change that has been studied since the 18th century. Basically the concept is that if we give people information about their actions in real time (or something close to it) and give them the opportunity to change their actions, we can encourage them to adopt better behaviors and they will do just that.

The folks over at Radarsign LLC, an American manufacturer of the world’s first armored driver feedback sign, produced a white paper that explains it all. The Science Behind Driver Feedback Signs’ Ability to Change Driver Behavior presents research on the scientific connections between driver behaviors, autopilot journeys, brain waves and reticular activators—the trigger in the Feedback Loop scenario.

Action, information, reaction—or in the case of speeding drivers-—compliance. Radar speed signs deliver this without an officer present.

Affordability and a 1-Month Return on Investment
Automated solutions don’t matter if they aren’t affordable or can’t deliver a strong ROI. Of course there are many ways to measure this: lives saved, citizen complaints, tickets handed out, etc. All can be tracked, but let’s focus on financial metrics.
Charlie Robeson, co-founder and managing partner at Radarsign, tells me that the large, clunky speed trailers can cost $6,000 to $15,000 each, while standard pole-mounted radar speed signs cost between $2,500 and $5,500 each (depending on power source, optional features, pole selection and installation). Because I suspect that trailers are a dying technology, I’m going to focus only on portable radar signs.

According to Robeson, a typical portable radar sign sold to law enforcement agencies runs about $3,300, or $275/month over a 12-month time period. The median salary for a police officer in the U.S. is $48,815/year or $4,068/month. This means that one of these signs—which typically operates 24/7/365—would be monitoring and enforcing driver speeds for 8,760 hours each year, non-stop. Even more impressive is that one sign would see a COMPLETE return on investment in just 26 days. Yes, mere days! ($3,300/$4,068 = 81.1% x 31 days = 25.2 days)

Scientifically Proven to Work
By now you know that radar speed signs can replicate some vital traffic calming efforts, they are affordable and they come with a quick ROI. But, perhaps most importantly, they are scientifically proven to be effective. In fact, there are many, many credible studies that confirm both the short-term and long-term effectiveness of radar speed signs. Here is just a sampling of those:

In locations where radar signs had been installed for six or more years, the majority of 85th percentile speeds dropped by 10 percent or more. [Source: City of Bellevue Transportation Study]

This research—one of the most notable studies focusing on the long-term effectiveness of radar speed signs on city streets—was conducted at 10 locations where feedback signs had been in place for six or more years. It confirmed that not only did the radar signs maintain their level of speed reduction, in most cases, their effectiveness increased.

  • Almost the same speed reduction was being achieved four months after installation. [Source: Texas Transportation Institute]
  • Data confirms a consistent reduction in average speeds and a 50 – 70 percent reduction in the number of drivers who speed more than five mph above the speed limit. More than two years after installation, data indicates a long-term shift in driver behavior (Alpharetta, Ga. location, comparing week-one data with week-109 data). [Source: Radarsign]
  • When used in highway work zones, these signs reduce mean vehicle speed an average of 5.2 mph. Additionally, highway workers thought the speed signs increased driver awareness and “significantly lowered speeds” in the area. [Source: FHWA]
  • Radar speed signs improve school zone safety by decreasing speeds and increasing compliance. [Source: Utah DOT ]

Well Liked by Drivers

Drivers definitely have a love-hate relationship when it comes to traffic calming because it impacts their daily lives as they commute from home to work and beyond each day. And while they may not want to adhere to the speed limit at times, speeding is the most common citizen complaint faced by law enforcement.

But it’s not as conflicting as it appears—some traffic calming is embraced, namely radar speed signs. A few years ago, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration conducted a study regarding consumer attitudes toward speeding and traffic calming. The findings revealed that radar speed signs are the most preferred speeding countermeasure. In fact, 89 percent of drivers gave radar speed signs the highest approval rating of all speeding countermeasures.
It’s an especially interesting result when you consider that other automated technologies—like red light cameras and automated ticketing—have been mired in controversy, bogged down by law suites and often uninstalled. And traditional vertical traffic calming options like speed bumps and speed humps are despised.

As an added bonus, these signs look good and can be ordered with custom poles in aluminum or black, preserving the architectural flavor of the areas where they are installed. So even the choosiest residents and motorists can be happy.

Law agencies of all sizes are relying on technology and automation to work better and create stronger teams of officers on the ground. But in this aspect, size matters. Larger departments have access to larger budgets, more tools and a larger pool of candidates to fill open positions. Radar speed signs can greatly impact the disparate availability of resources and level the playing field.

Even more importantly, these signs are an intelligent allocation of resources, both financial and human. They free up officers so that they can attend to urgent and non-urgent, yet still mission-critical, duties that are part of their day-to-day law enforcement work.

Traffic calming may not be every officer’s favorite daily task, but it’s an important one. It’s good to know that there are options that help us do it better. Be safe out there.


About Lt. Scott Clayton
Lt. Scott Clayton started his career in Georgia with the Marietta Police Department in 1984 after serving four years as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. During his time as an officer he was assigned to uniform patrol, DUI Task Force and the Marietta/Cobb/Smyrna (MCS) Drug Task Force. After promotion to Sergeant, Clayton became supervisor of the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP) and supervised the investigation of serious/fatality vehicle crashes and conducted city-wide traffic enforcement. In 1999 Clayton was selected as supervisor of the Crime Interdiction Unit (CIU) and carried out tactical street level crime/drug enforcement. He was later assigned to the Community Response Unit and coordinated crime prevention and education. After promotion to Lieutenant he worked as commander over STEP and CIU. During his 29 year career he spent 24 as a member of the Marietta SWAT team and was commander of the unit at the time of his retirement in 2013.