Car Chases Kill. That’s Why Police Need GPS Cannons.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 31 2013 6:28 PM

Car Chases Kill. That’s Why Police Need GPS Cannons.

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Trying to put a stop to dangerous high-speed chases

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Each day, someone in the United States dies as a result of a high-speed car chase. And we’re not talking about hardened criminals here. Of all the people killed in pursuits, 42 percent are innocent third parties. Sadly, many of these police chases probably aren’t even that necessary. In 2008, for instance, only 8.6 percent of police chases were the result of a violent crime. Most of them are for traffic violations.

Of course, police can’t let suspected criminals drive away just because it’s dangerous to chase them. That’s why we’ve worked to invent numerous methods for stopping cars in their tracks, from remote controlled spike strips and SQUIDs to a targeted electromagnetic pulse. But even in the best conditions, each of these technologies still means an unpredictable conclusion to the chase. So why not just back off and wait for the idiots to stop on their own? 

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That’s the premise behind StarChase pursuit management technology. All officers have to do is get somewhat close to the vehicle. Then, through a tiny door in the car’s grill, a laser-targeted air cannon fires a sticky GPS tag that harmlessly adheres to the target vehicle. With the tag in place, officers can back off or stop chasing the car entirely—the latter of which might convince the perp that the police have given up and convince him to pull over somewhere safe. All the while, cops can monitor the tag in near-real time on a digital roadmap.

I’m sure there’s a way you could spin this that invokes fear of the police state or abuse of power, but frankly, I think the system will likely fight such abuses more than it’ll enable them. Liability in the event of a chase is notoriously murky, and it often differs from state to state or district to district. Californians have fought over a bill commonly known as Kristie’s Law for years, the effect of which would limit immunity and hold police liable for some damages as a result of high speed chases—including injury and death. The proposed law gets its name from Kristie Priano, a 15-year-old girl killed when an SUV trying to escape the police crashed into her family’s minivan.

Innocent bystanders aren’t the only ones that would benefit from a passive system like StarChase. According to the national nonprofit PursuitSAFETY, one officer is killed every six weeks in a chase or responding to a non-life-threatening call. And even though spike strips and the like are preferable to high-speed crashes, just deploying this equipment puts officers at risk—even from their own departments.

“We’re interested in literally any technology that will help reduce or prevent the need for police chase,” said Jon Farris, chairman of the board for PursuitSAFETY. Farris is also the father of a child killed as the result of a high-speed pursuit. “Until it impacts you directly,” he told me, “it’s hard to get your hands around it.”

The only real drawback to the StarChase system is the cost. The launcher and installation run about $5,000 and each tag is $500 (though one would guess they’re easy to recover and reuse). Still, these costs seem paltry in comparison with legal fees, property damage, and wrongful death settlements that police departments often face after a particularly hairy chase. And obviously, you can’t put a price on a human life—be it criminal, bystander, or police.

At least they’re not asking taxpayers to pony up the cash to pay for Batcycle harpoons, right?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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