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Police Using Cessna Airplanes to Track Speeders

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In what can only be seen as a sustained act of predation, numerous states around the nation have been deploying aircraft to enforce speed limits and other traffic laws, for years.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol, for example, has 13 Cessna airplanes that track speeding cars, then radio the information to troopers in squad cars below.

They select areas for aircraft enforcement based on crash data. For example, the highway patrol put an air enforcement zone on Columbia Parkway/U.S. 50 at the request of the Cincinnati Police Department, and advertises the zone on signs to help deter aggressive driving, State Sgt. Vincent Shirey confirmed in a recent interview.

Statewide, Ohio planes helped make 27,500 traffic stops in 2012 – 5.2 stops per flight hour – and 24,900 stops in 2013 – 5.1 per flight hour. So far in 2014, stops per flight hour have increased slightly, to 5.4. How often the planes fly depends mostly on the weather.

So is the use of planes to enforce traffic laws a good use of taxpayer money? Sgt. Shirey says yes. In the 2013 fiscal year – the 12 months beginning July 1, 2012 – Ohio spent $101.59 per hour to fly the planes, or less than $20 per traffic stop.

In neighboring Kentucky, however, State Police doesn’t use its planes to patrol freeways because it’s “cost-prohibitive,” trooper Paul Blanton said. In Kentucky, the state takes only $2 in fines for every mile-per-hour over the speed limit – far less than the cost to fly the planes.

The bulk of the cost for drivers who speed goes to the county via a court fee that typically starts in the $140 range. For the state, which owns and operates the planes, “there’s no return on investment,” Blanton said.

Virginia has all but done away with aerial operations due to budget constraints. It costs $150 an hour to keep the birds in the sky, and that doesn’t consider overtime pay for pilots and the officers they coordinate with on the ground. (Most air surveillance works in tandem with at least one ground unit, and if you fight the ticket, both officers appear in court.)

All in all, Virginia’s aircraft deployed just once in 2011, and a representative of the aerial division confirmed that they flew with the same frequency in 2013—special projects only.

Indiana State Police do use planes to help issue speeding tickets, but only on roads with significant crash rates. The planes could make a reappearance ahead of big events. In the past, they monitored I-74 on Opening Day or when Cincinnati hosted the NCAA basketball tournament.

Iowa also still employs aircraft—eight helicopters . In addition to catching speeders and aggressive drivers, they also monitor illegal hunting. Lt. Robert Hansen says they can even use their units in response to certain situations, like hearing the revs of crotch rockets getting ready for a street race.

“Being in the air gives you an advantage in higher traffic areas where radar isn’t particularly effective,” Hansen explained. “It also lets you observe vehicles for a longer distance—at which point you can see quite well which car is traveling significantly faster than the others.”

If Virginia and Kentucky’s economic troubles indicate what’s ahead for other air programs, we may see new pressure to adopt smaller, more cost-efficient drone programs in their stead.

According to a poll taken when most arial traffic enforcement programs were getting off the ground, 67 percent of Americans “really don’t want” domestic drones monitoring their speed.