Harmon’s Histories: Missoula’s 1st speed traps, and other tales of woe

A Montana Highway Patrol yearbook photo from 1954 showing a radar test. (MHP)

If you’re nabbed for speeding by a Montana state trooper, you can blame John L. Barker Sr. He’s credited with developing the first police radar device back in the mid-1940s, in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Barker, an engineer at the Automatic Signal Company, worked on traffic stoplights in the 1930s, then during the war was assigned to work on radar devices.

Following World War II, he started experimenting with radar as a means of checking traffic speed on the Merritt Parkway. Between 1947 and 1949, police departments in New York and Connecticut, which previously had no way to accurately clock traffic speeds, tested Barker’s equipment.

The first actual “radar trap” is credited to the city of Glastonbury, Connecticut, in 1947. In the interest of fair play, officers there set up roadside warning signs.

In about a decade, iterations of Barker’s device found their way to the Treasure State.

These early radars were bulky to say the least – the size of a modern-day countertop microwave oven – perched on a tripod, with heavy cables running to a large meter.

A radar test near Butte in 1955. (Montana Highway Patrol yearbook)

It took a team of troopers to pull off a traffic stop. One would operate the radar by a patrol car, another would be the “cat” watching the meter, waiting for the speeding “mouse” – then would give chase. A third officer would be on deck to be the next “cat.”

In 1955, Montana Highway Patrol Billings-area supervisor Glenn M. Schultz told reporters the new radar, authorized by the State Highway Commission, would be in use in the area for the first time. He warned motorists to “know the speed limit and drive within it at all times, for there is a great chance your speed will be checked by radar.”

A moving car would appear on the radar scope as a series of “green flashes,” which had to be calculated on the spot by a trained operator to determine the car’s speed.

If the car was speeding, the operator would alert a nearby trooper to pull over the driver.

Schultz said the new equipment was among “568 speed-determining sets licensed by the federal government” around the country. He called them “highly accurate” adding, “The general response of violators, as recorded by radar, has so far been, ‘Guilty, your honor, radar doesn’t lie.’ ”

On a Friday night in early August 1958, MHP troopers set up their scanning device on U.S. Highway 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish. They proceeded to catch eight miscreants, one of whom was clocked at more than 100 mph!

Motorists, unfamiliar with the new devices, often mistook them for a mailbox or a surveyor’s instrument.

Residents on the south side of Missoula sent letters to the state complaining about speeders on 39th Street (then in the county). The highway department’s traffic division sent a technician out with a radar device to record speeds over a seven-hour period and report back.

The Highway Patrol and Missoula County Sheriff’s Department brought in their equipment as well, and handed out a dozen tickets. Acting-sheriff George Bukovatz told the Missoulian the speed campaign would continue on 39th, with “unannounced checks … during the day and night on Pattee Canyon Drive and in the Rattlesnake area,” as well.

Just like their counterparts in Connecticut a decade earlier, Montana officials ordered lots of new signs, with “black lettering on a white field” declaring “Radar Patrol,” to give drivers fair warning of the new technology.

It took until 1968 for an Ohio man – believing he had been unfairly ticketed for speeding – to out-Barker old John L. Barker Sr.

Dale Smith invented the radar-foiling device called the “Fuzzbuster.” Today, Smith’s idea has morphed into radar and laser-detecting devices with their own accompanying alphabet-soup vocabulary: VG-2, Spectre RDD, X-Band, K-Band, Ka-wide-band, Ka-Super-wide-band, Escort, Whistler and Cobra.

Personally, I’ll stick with the old “speed limit-plus 3” rule.

It works. I haven’t been nabbed since 1964.

Strange how you remember some things. Entering fossil-dom, I find myself having to make notes and lists to remember just about everything these days, but I can recall that incident long ago (age 18, 11 mph over the night limit of 55) just like it was yesterday.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula broadcast newsman who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current.