The next time you're on a stretch of highway and see a sign warning you of traffic control by aircraft, pay attention. Law enforcement officers may be buzzing right over your head.
People often slow down and change their behavior when they see a police car on the side of the road. It's one reason why states such as Ohio, Florida, Texas and New Jersey use fixed-wing aircraft to catch unsuspecting motorists breaking the law.
A virtually invisible traffic cop may seem like a sneaky way to catch bad drivers, but it's perfectly legal. Police surveillance by air doesn't violate the U.S. Constitution, says Randy Reep, a criminal defense attorney in Jacksonville, Fla. He notes that a motorist who's driving on public roads essentially consents to being monitored by police aircraft and radar.
Your auto insurance company doesn't see a difference between whether an airborne or an on-the-ground cop nabbed you for speeding, says Kevin Alsup, vice president of insurance at Foundation Insurance Services in Florida. For the most part, how much your insurance jumps following a speeding ticket depends on the fast you were driving, not how you were caught, Alsup says.
Eyes in the sky
"Eyes in the sky" patrol for speeding, aggressive, reckless and drunk drivers.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol, for example, participates in a program called TRIAD (Targeting Reckless, Intimidating, and Aggressive Drivers) in Cincinnati, Akron and Dayton. TRIAD uses in-the-air cops -- 15 pilots flying 13 planes -- in tandem with on-the-ground officers to catch dangerous drivers.
Ohio's airborne cops were involved in nearly 21,000 enforcement stops in 2011, says Lt. Anne Ralston, a spokeswoman for the Ohio State Highway Patrol. That included 959 citations for speeding at 90 mph or more. Ohio's speed limit is 65 mph on interstate highways.
The Florida Highway Patrol also uses eyes-in-the-sky surveillance, averaging 40,000 traffic stops a year, patrol spokesman Capt. Mark Brown says.
Sky patrols eliminate the need for officers to be at the right spot at the right time to catch a bad driver, Ralston says.
Plus, sky patrols let a pilot chase a vehicle for an extended period to observe maneuvers such as unsafe lane changes and following too closely, Ralston says. Cops on the ground can't track a car as easily if the driver takes off at a high speed or performs dangerous maneuvers in traffic. In addition, cops in the air aren't limited by things like traffic congestion and lane-separating concrete barriers.
"Pilots give us a much better opportunity to see a violation from their vantage points," Ralston says.
A coordinated effort
It takes more than one officer to catch a bad driver who's spotted by airborne police. The police officer in the sky works in conjunction with cops on the ground. The officers use fixed-wing aircraft rather than helicopters, which use much more fuel and can't stay in the air as long.
You may spot a road sign informing you that speed is enforced by aircraft or by VASCAR (Visual Average Speed Computer and Recorder), a police device that calculates the speed of a vehicle as it's moving through a designated "air speed zone." Since it does not use radar, VASCAR prevents recognition by radar detectors.
White horizontal markings on the road may be the only thing you'll see that signals you're in an air speed zone, says Don Roby, a cop in Maryland who chairs the aviation committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Sometimes relying on those markings, airborne cops time vehicles as they drive between known distances (quarter-mile marks within a one mile stretch of road), then calculate their speed. This way, law enforcement agencies "don't have to use radar or risk the safety of officers on the ground who'd otherwise have to jump out in the road with radar guns to track vehicles," Roby says.
If a pilot observes a driver speeding, for instance, he'll notify a ground cop via radio and guide that cop toward the speeding car. Once the speeding car has been pulled over, the airborne cop verifies the correct car has been nabbed.
Sometimes, a motorist doesn't believe that the speed has been checked by a cop in the air, Ralston says. "In such cases, we'll have the pilot verify his findings, which usually satisfies the driver," he says.
When and where air surveillance takes place depends largely on weather, money and manpower, Roby says. "You really never know they're there until you're pulled over," he says.