By David B. Caruso
Highway signs throughout New York warn that when it comes to catching speeders, the long arm of the law extends even into the sky. "State Police aircraft used in speed enforcement," they say.
Actually, lead-footed drivers hitting the interstates for the Independence Day holiday can keep their eyes on the road. The New York State Police, who once routinely used planes to clock motorists, haven't written a single ticket in that manner since at least 2005.
"It hasn't been entirely eliminated," Sgt. Kern Swoboda, a state police spokesman, said of the signs. "We still have the airplanes."
But in these budget-conscious times, he said, launching aircraft to catch speeders just isn't fiscally prudent.
New York is one of several states to scale back the use of aircraft for traffic enforcement in recent years because of budget cuts or concerns about cost-effectiveness.
Typically, aerial enforcement programs involve a plane, a pilot, a spotter to time vehicles as they travel between lines painted on the road and several cruisers to pull people over and issue tickets.
"That ain't cheap," Swoboda said. He added that updated laser technology now allows a trooper on the ground to get speed readings over long distances and in heavy traffic — two situations where aircraft used to be superior.
"So what better way to do it than have three guys at a U-turn?" Swoboda said. "We found that it was far more efficient, and a lot less expensive."
A full accounting of which law enforcement agencies have curtailed the use of aircraft for speed enforcement was unavailable, but the list includes some states that had previously made robust use of the tactic.
The California Highway Patrol still has 15 planes used to catch speeders, but spokeswoman Fran Clader said that as the department's annual air operations budget has dropped from about $12 million to $8 million, aircraft became more focused on supporting searches and pursuits.
"We still enforce speed with the fixed-wing aircraft but in a much-reduced capacity," she said.
The Virginia State Police launched an aggressive aerial speed enforcement program in 2000 but largely abandoned regular patrols after 2007. Last year, it flew only one such mission, which resulted in tickets being given to 20 drivers, the department said. It flew four missions the year before, none in 2009 and only one in 2008.
"Due to economic conditions and mandated budget cuts ... we've had to look at cost savings," said department spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
She said it cost about $150 per hour to operate the planes — a figure that includes fuel and maintenance but not manpower. In the past, she said, the speed enforcement flights were paid for with federal grants. But with less federal money coming in lately, resources have been focused on keeping troopers on the road.
The Washington State Patrol's aviation section, which had been participating in roughly 13,500 traffic stops per year, had to scale back after suffering a $1.4 million budget cut over a two-year period that began in 2009, according to unit commander Lt. Jim Nobach. It lost three pilots, who had to return to road duties. Flight hours were slashed by 39 percent. As a result, aircraft are now stopping 5,000 fewer drivers per year.
Planes are still getting a big workout spotting speeders in Ohio and Florida.
Last year, the Ohio State Highway Patrol said it issued more than 16,000 speeding tickets based on aircraft observations, down only a little from a five-year high of 18,000 written in 2009. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the start of the busy summer travel season, the agency had 10 aircraft in the air doing traffic enforcement, according to Lt. Randy Boggs, the unit's commander.
Florida's Highway Patrol has eight aircraft and eight pilots, who issue approximately 30,000 citations per year, said the patrol's chief pilot, Capt. Matthew Walker. He said he hadn't suffered budget cuts.
When done right, air patrols have distinct advantages, Boggs and Walker insisted. From the air, it's easier to see the ultra-aggressive drivers who change lanes erratically, follow too close, and pose the greatest hazard on the road. Officers on the ground don't have to race around for miles to spot violations.
"It's very efficient," Boggs said.
Ohio tries to keep the cost of flights down by flying smaller planes and having the pilot clock drivers, rather than use a second spotter. Boggs pegged the fuel and maintenance cost of flying at $111 per hour.
The Pennsylvania State Police have continued to use aircraft to catch speeders too, issuing 560 citations last year, but now the program faces new limitations.
This year, in a cost-cutting move, the department stopped using two of the three airports where its six fixed-wing aircraft had been based. The force is also operating with just three airplane pilots, down from as many as 10 in previous years, said Sgt. Joseph Joynes, supervisor of the aviation patrol's fixed-wing unit. That means the state now has twice as many planes as people capable of flying them.
Additionally, fewer spots in Pennsylvania have the necessary road markings used for enforcement, as the old lines have been covered over by new pavement and never replaced, said Joynes.
It isn't clear yet whether the changes will lead to fewer citations. Joynes said aircraft are still flying traffic enforcement missions two to three times a week.
"If you are just looking at cost, obviously, the trooper on the ground with a radar gun is way cheaper," he said. But he added that he thought the program was still worthwhile, given the ability of aircraft to spot reckless drivers in areas where traditional speed traps aren't feasible.
Other states have come to the opposite conclusion.
Alabama lawmakers instituted aerial speed enforcement in 1990, and the Alabama Highway Patrol still touts the program on its website. But aviation unit Cpl. Kent Smith said the tactic hasn't actually been used for years.
"It's just not cost-effective," he said.
In many places where speed enforcement by aircraft has tapered off, law enforcement air wings have remained busy conducting surveillance, tracking crime suspects, searching for missing people, and spotting marijuana farms from the air.
Police officials in Virginia, California and New York were unable to provide an estimate of how much money had been saved by the shift away from aerial speed enforcement.
In the meantime, workers have been gradually removing the aircraft speed enforcement warning signs along the New York State Thruway. About 11 still remained in June, a Thruway spokesman said.