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A Look Back • St. Louis police first aim radar at speeders in 1953

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ST. LOUIS • John H. Boka’s fine of $17 was the stiffest because he had the heaviest foot. Mildred Fabick’s case was dropped over an incorrectly written ticket.

Boka, 50, of Richmond Heights and Fabick, 31, of Ladue, were among the seven defendants on the city’s inaugural docket of speeding motorists who were nabbed by the newfangled wizardry known as traffic radar. Police Judge Robert G. Dowd moved through the cases quickly on Nov. 18, 1953, gaveling fines ranging $13 to $17.

Ladue and University City introduced traffic radar in 1952, but the St. Louis Police Department established its radar zone on the area’s first modern crowded freeway — the Oakland Express Highway, a four-lane artery that ran from Hi-Pointe along Forest Park to Chouteau Avenue. (Highway 40/Interstate 64 now uses the route.)

Its speed limit was 40 mph. Police made a big deal of the new technology, posting “radar controlled” signs along the highway several days in advance and sharing their plans with the press. Dowd took part with police officials in a test of the system on Oct. 29, and he declared the device good enough for jurisprudence.

Ticket-writing began Nov. 4. Two weeks later, the first “hot-foot” motorists appeared before the judge in the Municipal Courts Building, next to City Hall.

Boka, an accountant, didn’t dispute that he had been going 52 mph. Fabick walked because an officer had jotted the wrong courtroom on her ticket. Two defendants asked for continuances. Fines that morning totaled $60.

In 1953, catching speeders by police radar was a cumbersome affair. Police had to set their 45-pound transmitter-receiver on the highway shoulder. The bulky black box was connected by wire to a monitor inside a parked patrol car. The monitor provided evidence of speeding with a needle that drew a zig-zag line across a moving roll of paper.

When the needle jumped, the radar operator had to look up, make a note of the speeding vehicle and provide the description over the radio to motorcycle officers waiting up ahead. Even with all those elements of evidence-gathering, few bothered to protest.

RADAR, the acronym for Radio Detection and Ranging, was one of the gadgets that had helped win World War II. In 1952, the United States and Canada began installing a network of radar stations to warn against attack by Soviet bombers over the Arctic Circle. Scott Air Force Base had a new system that could “see” small planes 30 miles away.

Police said cabbies took to calling it the “voodoo box,” but the magic worked in court. Of the first 1,000 speeders pulled over by the city radar crew, all but four pleaded guilty. Only two beat the rap.

The first radar sets cost $1,100, or almost one-third of a first-year patrol officer’s annual salary and the equivalent of nearly $10,000 today. The department quickly ordered two more.

Unsurprisingly, attempts at evasion began immediately. Maj. William Cibulka, traffic division commander, said some motorists dragged chains or slung “static straps” beneath their vehicles in the hope of spoiling the radar signal. It didn’t work.

“We tried it ourselves,” said a grinning Cibulka.

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series. 

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