Riding With the Mittagong Highway Patrol
Matching wits with traffic scofflaws Down Under
by Craig Peterson
In New South Wales, Australia, Mittagong Highway Patrol Sr. Constable Steve Case stops an average of 100 big rigs each week along the Hume Highway.
[I wrote this story under contract several years back for a law enforcement magazine. In one of those petty disputes common to this business, the publisher purchased the story but then withheld publication. But the first-publication rights expired recently and the copyright reverted to the author, allowing it to be published — finally. My appologies to the officers involved.]
— Mittagong, New South Wales
An unending stream of traffic is booming past us along the Hume Highway about 90 kilometers south of Sydney, Australia. There are many big rigs,
most heading for Melbourne, and the CB airwaves are alive with anxious chatter about roving enforcers the truckers are quite certain lie in wait ahead.
They're not imagining the threat. I'm sitting in a 5.7-liter Holden Commodore police sedan alongside Senior Constable Steve Case, an officer whose skills have made him something of a celebrity among local truckers and one regarded with
dread by miscreants. We're parked semi-concealed in the median at the top of The Big Dipper, a giant, mile-long depression traversed by this road, the main freeway
linking Sydney and Melbourne, some 650 miles to the south.
Case is with the Highway Patrol division of the New South Wales Police, a huge department with nearly 15,000 sworn officers. The Highway Patrol accounts for about
3,000 of those. Case has 15 years in with the department, not unusual for officers of the Highway Patrol division. It's a prestigious unit populated by officers with an average of 10 years'
experience. A minimum of three years is required of an officer hoping to transfer into the unit and a years-long wait for a vacancy isn't unusual. Once accepted, even
experienced officers attend a lengthy advanced driving school that includes a seven-day course in pursuit driving. All told, each is given five to ten times more driver training than
the typical U.S. highway patrol officer.
Case says that most officers join the unit because they like working traffic and enjoy the freedom. "We have very little close supervision," Case says, "and we're not graded
on numbers. Supervisors look at miles driven and activity levels." This is results-oriented policing and while traffic is the primary mission of the Highway Patrol, its officers also
handle tasks as disparate as commercial-vehicle safety, domestic disputes and accident investigations.
Case likes the variety and he particularly enjoys commercial-vehicle enforcement, stopping an average of 100 big rigs weekly. His success at enforcing speed limits and
safety regulations has garnered him the reputation among outlaw truckers as being seriously bad news. And his prowess at spotting radar detectors—illegal in New South
Wales but widely used by truckers—has sparked a continuing game of cat-and-mouse between Case and any driver packing one of the devices. By all accounts, he wins far more encounters than
Parked with the Holden nestled among dense undergrowth in the median, Senior Constable Case says this is one of his favorite spots for working radar. I can see why. The white Commodore
four-door is invisible to southbound traffic, even if they're looking for it. After they've passed, Case can check their speed with radar at his leisure. And with no tall shrubbery to
obstruct his view, northbound traffic can be observed from the moment it pops into sight over a steep hill well over one kilometer away, then easily tracked as it approaches us.
Radar microwaves, being line-of-sight, revel in this type of point-to-point targeting. The Kustom Signals Silver Eagle K-band radar Case is using could easily reach out to the
distant hillcrest from this location, but there's no need. Instead, Case plays it by the book, watching possible violators at length and acquiring a good tracking history
before finally pressing the XMT button on the remote control and watching a target speed appear. With only the Commodore's white roof visible from afar, there's little chance
that most drivers will sense the threat and slow down.
But truckers hammering down the Hume Highway are exceptions to this rule. They know every inch of this road and not only are they looking for the cops, they know where to find them. They have assistance; aside from CB radios, many are also packing radar detectors. New South Wales takes a dim view of radar detectors, reflected in the
$1,000 (Australian) fine merely for possessing one. The financial penalties for speeding are equally imposing. For exceeding the limit by 15 to 30 kph (9-19 mph) the penalty is a
$184 fine and three demerit points. At 30-45 kph (19-28 mph) those numbers rise to $540 and four points. Driving privileges are also suspended for one month. Get stopped for
speeding more than 45 kph over the limit and while it's not a capital offense, it's close: a $1,419 fine and 90 days' suspended license. In a single traffic stop, these draconian fines
can add up to serious money.
For truckers the risk is heightened; even a few brushes with the law can mean having a commercial driver's license summarily yanked. For this reason their cat-and-mouse
relationship with Constable Case and his fellow officers is taken very seriously. When truckers widely began using radar detectors in the late eighties, the Highway Patrol soon
countered with the Technisonics Interceptor VG-2 radar detector detector. But detector manufacturers quickly changed local-oscillator frequencies, making their wares again immune to
When Technicsonics declined to update the VG-2 accordingly, resourceful NSW Highway Patrol officers modified some of the RDDs themselves, retuning them to ferret out
new Cobra and Whistler radar detectors. But these
stopgap measures meant that more than a few detectors slipped past.
This technological stalemate lasted until a new radar detector detector, the Stalcar RDD by Queensland-based Stealth Micro Systems, appeared in recent years. With the
Stalcar's arrival, the balance of power clearly has shifted in favor of the enforcers. On a recent day SC Case shows a visitor around the small patrol substation in bucolic
Mittagong, just off a Hume Highway exit. He nods at a white dry-erase bulletin board on which is written the year's current tally of confiscated radar detectors: 73. "With the
VG-2 (the Canadian-built radar detector detector) we picked up 172 radar detectors in two years," he says. "With the Stalcar we've written 72 citations for detectors in four
He offers as proof a large cardboard shipping box bulging with dozens of radar detectors. They're all U.S.-made and several are Valentine One models that locals buy on the
gray market for $1,000 or more. Some truckers have gone to extreme lengths to conceal a radar detector, often building it into an innocent object inside the cab. Many carry a
second, throw-down radar detector, surrendering it should they be targeted by the Stalcar.
Passenger-car drivers have been known to be equally cagey. For example, Case recently stopped a Subaru WRX for driving 170 kph in a 100 kph zone. The fine: $1,419
plus six demerit points and a 90-day suspension of driving privileges. Case had noted the Subie pilot spiking his brakes in reaction to being hit by radar, a dead give-away that he
was packing a radar detector. But he denied having one and there was none visible in the cockpit.
If he was lying, under the law the driver was "hindering a police officer in the execution of his duties", the Australian equivalent of our statutes prohibiting interference with an
officer. But here that is most often interpreted to mean physical interference. In Oz, a crafty driver who conceals a radar detector to prevent its detection can be charged with hindering
an officer. High-end American detectors routinely sell on the black market here for twice list price. Sales are brisk, despite automatic confiscation if they are discovered.
Case and his partner, Sr. Constable John Steidel, also a 15-year veteran, pulled the driver out of the WRX and started searching. Presently they found a toggle switch in the
driver-side kick panel. When the switch was activated, an audio alert sounded in reaction to their radar. The driver was handed a ticket for that too. ($1,067 and four points.) Total
fines: $2,486 plus 10 points (12 points in a two-year period results in license revocation). And the Subie pilot's $650 radar detector was tossed into that trophy box full of
confiscated detectors back at the station.
Tour complete, we head out on patrol. The Holden Commodore is a mainstay of the NSW Highway Patrol. Ironically, this General Motors four-door sedan uses the same
powertrains and running gear as our Camaro and Corvette. The Commodore has an independent rear suspension and is about the size and weight of the new Chevrolet Impala,
but it handles better and goes considerably faster. This one sports an LS1 Chevrolet small-block backed by a four-speed automatic. Hefty brake calipers peeking out from the
police-spec, heavy-duty wheels are clearly borrowed from the base Corvette.
"We run them on unleaded regular instead of high-octane to save money," Case says. "We checked with the Holden engineers. They said it wouldn't hurt the engine, but it would give up some performance. Sometimes you can hear it ping when you really get on it, but it seems to run well." Indeed. Despite big aerodynamic drag from its chunky strobe-light bar, later in the day I watch as 250 kph (155 mph) rolls past on the Commodore's 300 kph speedometer while Case hustles to reel in a high roller.
This wasn't the white-knuckle experience to be expected in most U.S. highway patrol cars. I've attended a number of instructor-level, police-pursuit driving and escape-and-evasion driving schools including those of BSR, Inc., the shadowy Virginia outfit that trains the Secret Service, FBI HRT and foreign counter-terrorism units in advanced weapons and driving techniques. (It's the inventor of the PIT —Precision Immobilization Technique— maneuver, another of its certifications I've acquired.) During ride-alongs with fellow classmates, most of them veteran police and highway patrol chief driving instructors, I've learned one reason why most cops are lousy drivers: their instructors are lousy drivers.
Watching Case behind the wheel, it's clear that he's of a different class. He sits relaxed but alert, eyes constantly flicking between his mirrors and searching far up ahead. His control inputs are smooth, measured, deliberate and never hurried, the legacy of constant anticipation. And there are subtle telltales of superior talent. Braking to a full stop, at the precise instant when dynamic vehicle weight shifts forward and the passengers' heads can be expected to bob in unison, I can feel him modulate brake pressure ever so slightly, softening weight transfer and cancelling the last hint of body motion. This sort of finesse is a part of car control mentioned by instructors during chalk-talks in EVOC driver-training classrooms—and rarely witnessed on the street.
I've written for years that our emergency vehicle/police purusuit drver training is a joke. And the stats bear this out. Our cops crash a city police car on
average every 28,000 miles. Highway patrol troopers do somewhat better, averaging about 35,000 miles between crashes, mainly because they have fewer objects to hit. After as little as four hours behind the wheel in mainly low-speed maneuvers, with several more spent in the classroom, the typical officer's driving education ends upon graduation from the academy.
Most cops regard themselves as superior drivers and of the hundreds I've known, only two admitted privately that their driving talent was perhaps only average. (Both men were chief driving instructors for a major Rocky Mountain-region state patrol, one of whom nearly killed me during a photo shoot when he lost control of the police Crown Victoria I was photographing.)
With barely more training than a civilian counterpart, in an extended pursuit there's an excellent chance that an officer will crash. Most pursuit policies are written to protect the department from liability and quell the inevitable public relations blowback when an officer-involved, high-speed collision results in the death of a civilian. Very few departments have taken steps to properly train their officers.
The New South Wales Highway Patrol takes a different approach. If an officer is a General Duties (patrol division) man and hasn't received advanced EVOC training, he's not allowed to engage in no-limits Code 3 pursuits. And before initiating a pursuit, every officer must tell the dispatcher the type of patrol vehicle he's driving: a Type 1 is pursuit-rated, a type 3 is not, for example. Additional information must be radioed to the dispatcher, Case says: "Weather conditions, traffic conditions, anything that might have an effect on the pursuit."
Traffic enforcement in New South Wales also appears to merit a more prominent status than it enjoys in the States. The universal citation form commonly used by U.S. departments rarely provides more than a few rudimentary check boxes, for violation-code section, posted limit, violation speed and whether radar, laser, pacing or a time/distance computer was used. An officer wishing to make note of the particulars of the violation—type of enforcement equipment he used and the manner in which it was employed—usually must write everything on the back of his copy of the citation. In contrast, the front lower half of the NSW "infringement form", or citation, has sections that spell out many of the particulars. There are helpful boxes to record the number of seconds the target vehicle was observed in violation (tracking history), the presence of any other vehicles near the target, even whether the officer was forced to use the siren or overheads to get the violator's attention while making the stop.
There are other differences in enforcement styles. Parked again along the Hume Highway, I'm making conversation while watching Senior Constable Case work radar. I'm
explaining the legal prerequisites for making a DUI traffic stop in the States. Case listens patiently as I drone on, checking off the steps: Observe erratic driving that suggests
impairment or witness a traffic infraction that provides a pretext for the stop; notice the odor of an alcoholic beverage on the driver's breath, and so on. I'm half way through the
myriad descriptions of the various types of roadside sobriety check when I can see that Case has something to say.
"We don't have to do any of that," he says flatly.
"Then how is it done here in Australia?" I inquire.
"Watch," says Case, and slaps the transmission lever into drive. As we emerge from the brushy median, he pauses to let a northbound blue Ford sedan whistle past, then pulls onto the pavement and nails the throttle. The Holden's rear tires scrabble for traction as the Chevy V-8 sends its robust 300 hp to the rear axle. He's clearly interested in the blue Ford but why, I have no idea. I'd glanced at the target-speed display on the Kustom Signals radar and it was well under the 110 kph (66 mph) limit as it approached us.
Regardless, Case quickly reels in the hapless Ford and activates his overheads, following as the driver obediently pulls onto the shoulder and comes to a stop. Case
reaches into his duty bag on the rear seat and produces a preliminary breath tester, then levers open his door and strides briskly up to the Ford. After a very brief conversation, I
watch as Case holds up the PBT and the driver dutifully blows into it. With barely a glance at the BAC reading and with a few departing words, Case returns to the car, stowing
his gear and buckling up. The entire episode has consumed less than 90 seconds.
"That," he says, "is how we do it here."
No probable cause, no reasonable suspicion, no roadside sobriety tests, none of the legal niceties required in the U.S.. "We've been able to make stops for random breath tests for the last 25 years," Case says as we accelerate back into traffic. He nods as we pass some road kill, a large brown animal of indeterminate origin. "Wombat," he says. "Those and the 'roos are the biggest problems we see down here at night. They kind of crouch over and when the car rolls over them, they can wipe out the lower front end, sometimes take a wheel with it. A full-grown wombat can even knock out a big truck if one of the front wheels hits it dead-on. And hitting a 'roo can be fatal."
No question about it; traffic enforcement is quite different here in Oz.