speed checked by planes

Along a road trip this weekend my friend and I couldn’t help but notice a whole bunch of postings along the highway saying that our speed is checked from airplanes. How the heck do planes give us speeding tickets?

If the signs aren’t part of a scam, like black and whites with a dummy in them, the plane times you between highway marks and radios a patrol car further down the road with your description and maybe even license number.

They start with some white markings on the road, a fixed distance apart. Airplanes and helicopters can gauge your speed by measuring the length of time it takes for your car to travel between the two markings. If they spot a speeder, they radio to a law enforcement officer on the ground.

The planes will time how long it takes you to travel between two lines on the road and calculate your speed. There will be several patrol cars waiting farther down the road, the plane will radio your description and speed to them and one will pull you over and write you a ticket.

They tried this in my home state of New South Wales, Australia in the late 80s. I haven’t heard of it since then, so it must’ve proven too expensive or something.

I’m not sure of the set-up in your area, but here it was a simple matter of two lines painted across the road a set distance apart, and a spotter in the aircraft performing a simple check with a stopwatch. I never actually saw it done, but they’d have a hard time reading the car plates from up there, so I guess they’d radio the make, model, colour, and position of the car to a waiting roadside police unit.

“Red Camry lane three… no… dark red… huh?..Burgundy, if you will… no, not that one, the one behind… yeah…, no in lane THREE, I said…”

I can see why this isn’t a common form of traffic policing. Much simpler just to have a bloke with a radar.

According to [url=http://www.nbc4.com/answerstoaskliz2001/1192828/detail.html]this site, VA and MD use a small single engine plane for this purpose.

I have to wonder if this is at all common, or just a scare tactic. It seems so ineffecient, I can’t imagine using it for any other reason.

It used to be common near Venice, Fl when I lived there. I always suspected there was a local patrolman that was a private pilot, and he “rented” his plane and services to his Highway Patrol station.

Someone told me that light aircraft check your speed in Arkansas. They were driving near Little Rock. Don’t know if they do this anywhere else though.

There are a lot of these signs in Montreal. My guess is that it might actually be used there, since a lot of the highway system is ramps and skyways, and there really isnt any place to park a car for a speed trap.

My dad was in the FAA and was stationed in Daggett, CA for a while. A CHP pilot lived nearby and the Cessna 185 was kept at the airport. The freeways are marked with white lines on the right shoulder at regular intervals. The pilot could check speeds by timing their progress over a known distance and then radio to a ground unit.

Since the speed limits are no longer 55 mph and most people seem to stick within 5-10 mph of the posted limit, I’m guessing that the CHP aircraft are used to catch egregious speeding and for looking for crashes, disabled vehicles, etc. Just a guess though.

In Virginia, they’ve got those signs on some major highways, and white lines across the road a measured quarter-mile apart in places, but I hardly ever see the Cessna’s following or crossing the roads.

I’ve been told, by a retired law-enforcement fellow, that since it takes three cops to do the job (two in the plane, and one in a patrol car), that it was given up as too costly.

And since the police in Virginia all have VASCAR units in their cars, the lines can still serve their purpose.

They do it here. A lot. About twice a month in summer they use a plane for several hours over the interstate a couple miles from my house. It circles back close to my house. All noise, all afternoon. Drives me nuts after awhile.

The strips are a mile north on my exit; the cops sit just south of my exit, with a chase car on the top of the exit as well. When I see several patrol cars up there I know they’re waiting for the plane to show up.

They use a pilot and a spotter, plus three or four cars, plus the chase car just in case. The paper reported once that well over a hundred tickets were written in three hours one day. Pretty effective cash collection system. And the thing is, you never see the cop waiting until a mile after you were caught. And your detectors don’t do a bit of good.

If you drive thru the trap you’ll see several cars stopped at any time. The cops just step into the lane and point at you, then point to the side of the road. You pull in and get your ticket. You go, and he’s already pointing out another.

Years back, I used to listen on the scanner. A cop says “give me another” and the spotter ID’s one. “Red Chevy, lane two. 77.” Boom, that quick. Sometimes it’s “Green Toyota and blue pickup right behind him. Both 81.” Or “two CSX tractors, left lane, 68.” Then the cops get a two-fer LOL. He’s always got plenty in reserve it seems. Once I heard a chase. The speeder drove past the stop, then off an exit, then down another road. The blocks out here in the country are a mile square. The plane directed the chase, sending another car parallel and out in front two miles off the interstate to block the road. Hard to outrun that kind of pursuit, especially out in the country.

Yeah, they never learn; you can outrun a Crown Vic, but you can’t outrun Motorola.

I used to see more signs like this. Every time I saw these signs I’d look up at the sky to see if there were any planes flying around, but I never saw them. I don’t know anyone who has been cited for speeding because of an air patrol.

What’s the procedure for appealling a ticket-by plane? Normally, if you are stopped by an officer in a vehicle, they must show up in court. But if it requires a pilot/spotter/and ticketing officer, must they all show up? Also, how can they prove that you were indeed speeding satisfactorily in a court of law? Just curious.

Whenever I see those “Speed patrolled by aircraft” signs, I always think up other unusual ways of catching speeders:

Speed patrolled by trains
Speed patrolled by bipedal anthropomorphic robots
Speed patrolled with futuristic sonic devices by underground river-running raftsmen that patrol from a river running parallel to this highway
Speed patrolled by trained bats
Speed patrolled by many-tenticled aliens
Speed patrolled by double and triple-decker busses.
Speed patrolled by your future self, come back in a time machine
etc… (I get pretty bored when I drive, gotta keep awake somehow).

In California, speed enforcement may not lawfully be done by timing a target vehicle over a known distance. This is defined by the Vehicle Code as a “speed trap”, and is specifically prohibited. Of course, most airborne California Highway Patrol officers will still time the target vehicle, but if called to testify, the method they’ll claim to use is measuring the PLANE’S ground speed using the marks on the ground, and comparing that speed to the speed of the target vehicle.

On the highways in Colorado I was told that they space the white lines a specific distance apart to aid with this. Not just the VASCAR lines, but the normal dashed white ones. And it seemed to work when I tested it. If you count “One-Thousand and one” from the start of the first dash to the end of the second dash then your car was doing 60mph. I tested it all the time (I used to drive 500 miles every other weekend between home and college). It was a neat trick.

I don’t know if this holds up anywhere else…



I just popped in a few search terms into Westlaw and found this:
Washington Statutes 46.61.470; Speed traps defined, certain types permitted–Measured courses, speed measuring devices, timing from aircraft

(bolding mine)

There must be more, but I’ve not that much time to poke around. Let me know if anyone really wants me to check their state.

I got a ticket in one of these traps a few years ago. I have a red car - stuck out like a sore thumb. I was almost to the damn exit I was getting off at too.

I believe the plane basically picks the speeders out and then the guys on the ground back it up with the radar. They gotta be pretty gutsy to step out into the middle of a busy interstate and wave cars over, sometimes 2 or 3 at a time.

Ummm, they can mount radar devices on the helicopters to get accurate measures of speed, and the helicopter can take pictures of a speeder’s licence plate. It will then vector the patrol cars in on the speeder. If they dont pull over, has anyone seen COPS?