Scamming the Airwaves

The signs scattered along the highways in Virginia warn of a menacing presence in the sky, ready and waiting to hand down punishment from above.

All the signs are there, but are we really being monitored from above?

By Brendan Smith

After tearing past one of the signs, drivers often jerk their heads skyward, scanning for unseen troopers hiding in the clouds. Is that a plane in the distance? Maybe it’s behind me, better slow down…

But the signs also trigger a gnawing skepticism and some lingering doubts. Really? Are the Virginia State Police really spending the time and money to snag speeders with planes, or are these signs just a hollow banging of the gong?

Well, go ahead and bang that gong because the skies are clear over Virginia, even though the signs say otherwise.

The slumping economy hasn’t hit just Wall Street and Main Street. Faced with rising costs for plane fuel and maintenance, the Virginia State Police has stopped conducting its airborne speeding patrols. The total patrols for 2008 and 2009 stands at zero, says First Sgt. Jay Cullen, assistant commander of the department’s aviation unit.

“It’s been kind of hit or miss here lately. We’ve run into kind of a budget crunch,” he says. “It seems every time we turn around we get hit with something bigger and more expensive.”

But even when the aviation unit was catching lead foots from the sky, the numbers weren’t earthshaking. “The chances of getting stopped by the airplane are very slim,” Cullen says.

That’s an understatement. Airborne patrols resulted in 145 tickets in 2005, 495 tickets in 2006, and 667 tickets in 2007, but zero for 2008 and 2009, according to Virginia State Police statistics. By comparison, troopers handed out a total of more than 212,000 speeding citations statewide in 2006. Do the math and your chances of getting caught by a plane versus a trooper on the road was .002 percent. That’s not far off from the current rate of 0 percent since the patrols have been grounded.

Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA’s Mid-Atlantic region, says a “bear in the sky” program can have a big impact on drivers and force them to slow down. “If you’ve got a plane or helicopter flying overhead, a lot of people see that. That’s high visibility,” he says.

But signs without planes cruising overhead are just … signs.

“If you have a bunch of signs, and you never ever see the activity, the message is clear,” Anderson says. “That’s what’s happening right now.”

Using a plane to catch speeders is a relatively simple, but manpower-intensive, operation.

The Virginia State Police has four Cessna 182 planes stationed at four bases across the state. A pilot takes off with a trooper on board who operates a VASCAR unit, which is “basically nothing more than a fancy stopwatch,” Cullen says.

The acronym stands for Visual Average Speed Computer and Recorder. The Virginia State Police has used VASCAR units at approximately 100 marked sites on highways across the state, those dotted white lines that cross the lanes followed by another set of lines at a measured distance further down the road.

In an airborne patrol, a pilot flies within eyesight of the highway markers. The trooper on board flips a switch on the VASCAR unit when a vehicle crosses the first set of lines and then flips it again when the vehicle passes the second set of lines. The machine then calculates the speed from Point A to Point B. It’s not much more complicated than a junior-high math problem, and the machine does all of the work.

The trooper on the plane then radios troopers stationed further ahead on the highway about which vehicles to stop, and the pilot follows overhead to make sure the right vehicles are pulled over. “As you’re circling over the vehicles that have been stopped, the trooper is pointing up at the sky at us, and people are looking out of their windows,” Cullen says. “There is a little bit of that disbelief.”

Even though radar detectors are illegal in Virginia, scofflaws still known to use them to avoid tickets. The VASCAR unit doesn’t rely on radar, however, so a radar detector won’t help a speeding driver. “It’s just simply done with the act of the human eyeball and a switch, so there’s no way you can detect it,” Cullen says.

The downside is observant speeders who see the first set of stripes on the highway can brake hard and drive slowly until they pass the second markers, and then speed up again.

Another problem is the cost and manpower needed. A typical four-hour patrol requires a pilot and a trooper in the air and at least two troopers on the ground.

With a 90-gallon gas tank and a cruising speed of roughly 150 miles per hour, the Cessna burns 10 gallons of fuel per hour. It costs about $70 per hour to keep the Cessna in the air, and a typical operation will result in 30 or 40 tickets, Cullen says. If drivers challenge the tickets in court, both the trooper who issued the citation on the ground and the trooper working the VASCAR unit in the plane must appear in court, expending more hours on the clock.

Many people would argue that the pilots of the Virginia State Police Aviation Unit have more important things to do than chase speeders. The unit has made more than 55,000 flights since it was founded in 1984. In addition to the four Cessna planes, the unit uses four Bell 407 helicopters and three American Eurocopters, which are stationed at bases in Richmond, Lynchburg, Manassas and Abingdon.

The state aviation unit provides medical evacuations, narcotics and criminal surveillance, and searches and rescues using spotlights and an infrared system. Pilots also fly on missions requested by other law-enforcement agencies, including aerial support for presidential motorcades, tracking of high-speed pursuits, searches for fugitives and suspects, and photographing of crime scenes for evidence that may be more visible from the air than on the ground.

Since the Virginia State Police has decided that airborne speeding patrols are too expensive and impractical, then why are all of those “Speed Enforced By Aircraft” signs still littering the highways?

In the end, the only deterrent left from the program is the signs themselves.

“I believe that is probably part of the whole package,” Cullen says. “You put the signs out that we do do it, and it’s an alternative. It’s not just a trooper vehicle you’re worried about in the center median.”

Anderson with the AAA is more skeptical. He says drivers eventually catch on if they never see planes buzzing over the highways. “Signs could be helpful if there was some proof that that they weren’t signs speaking with a forked tongue,” he says.

(November 2009)