The Westchester County (N.Y.) Police Department uses a ghost car, a cruiser that has no roof lights and whose markings can be seen only at close range. (By Westchester County (N.Y.) Police)
By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
Speeders, beware: That innocent-looking Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Fusion or SUV you're about to blow past just might be the law.
In their effort to reduce speeding - a factor in nearly one-third of all highway deaths - state and local police agencies around the USA increasingly are using unmarked patrol cars, sports cars and even "ghost" cruisers with obscured markings. Police also use the stealth vehicles to combat distracted and aggressive driving.
"This is not about being sneaky," says Fargo, N.D., Police Chief Keith Ternes, whose department recently began using unmarked vehicles to catch speeders. "This is about trying to change people's habits and having them pay attention to their driving even when they don't think a police officer is watching."
Police say the move to more surreptitious patrol cars is necessary because some of the nation's worst, habitual speeders constantly spot marked cars in time to avoid hefty fines that could change their behavior.
It's a deadly cycle: Speeding contributed to 31% of all fatal crashes in 2008 - 11,674 lives - at a cost of $40.4 billion, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; distracted driving is a factor in about 16% of road deaths.
Reanna Darone, 32, of North Tonawanda, N.Y., says she got nailed for speeding last month by a Tonawanda police officer in an unmarked Ford Fusion.
"He was right on my back," says Darone, who works for a tourism agency. "I thought it was just a regular person who followed too close. It had no bubble lights, nothing. Next thing I knew, I heard the siren."
Among police agencies making it harder to spot traffic enforcers:
• About 15%-20% of the Iowa State Patrol's cars are unmarked, mostly Ford Crown Victorias with a sprinkling of Dodge Chargers, says Capt. Curt Henderson.
"It's an important tool," he says. "The officers we assign these vehicles to see violations that officers assigned to a fully marked car never get to see."
• Fargo's 144-officer department recently began using two unmarked black Ford Explorers and an unmarked maroon Dodge Intrepid to combat speeding.
"I want people in Fargo to think a police officer may be in any car," Chief Ternes says.
• The Westchester County (N.Y.) Police Department is one of several across the USA that uses a ghost car, a cruiser that has no roof lights and whose markings can be seen only at close range.
"You can read the lettering but you have to be right next to the car," spokesman Kieran O'Leary says. "It really blends into the traffic."
Drivers say encountering an officer in a stealth vehicle is a jolting experience.
James Shell, 55, of South Bend, Ind., got a ticket on U.S. 31 after he roared past a gray Mustang at 80 mph in a 60 mph zone.
"Even when I passed it, I didn't even look to see who was inside," says Shell, 55, an investigator for the Labor Department. "After I got around it, in the rearview mirror I could see him put on his Smokey Bear hat. That's when he hit his lights. I was like, they now use souped-up Mustangs?"
Shell's inattentiveness cost him about $120, but he learned a valuable lesson.
"Most definitely, it had an impact," he says. "Since that happened to me, I said never again. It made me slow down."