Monday, February 20, 2012

Virginia State Police rarely monitor speed via aircraft

You've probably scene this sign while driving at some point: "Speed limits are being enforced by aircraft."   Turns out most of the time, it's not true.  Aerial speed enforcement operations last four to six hours and cost $150 an hour, plus overtime for extra troopers.

Large signs lining Virginia's highways ominously warn drivers that someone up in the sky could be watching them speed. But that's almost never the case.

The aircraft used by Virginia State Police to catch speedsters on interstates were deployed only five times since 2008 and just once in all of 2011. None of those speed checks in the last three years were in Northern Virginia.

The state rarely uses Aerial Speed Enforcement operations because of budget constraints. It costs $150 an hour to fuel and maintain the aircraft needed for the surveillance, according to the Virginia State Police, plus overtime expenses for the additional troopers needed to assist in the effort. Missions tend to last four to six hours.

"It happens to be expensive and it does require a number of resources," said State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller. "Because of the economy we've had to make cuts. It's just another tool in our toolbox."

Along Interstate 95 between Richmond and the Potomac River, signs claiming "Speed limit enforced by aircraft" outnumber the actual number of aircraft operations in recent years.

"[We want] to let the public be aware that in Virginia it is a tool that law enforcement are permitted to use," Geller said. "If [the signs] also serves as a deterrent to get people complying with a speed limit -- you always want people abiding by the law."

The General Assembly allocates a lump sum to the Virginia State Police, which typically isn't enough to pay for the aerial operations. Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed about $556 million for state troopers in his two-year budget.

State Police instead rely mostly on federal highway safety grants to run the aerial operations and are still waiting to see if funds will be available for 2012. Revenue generated by State Police tickets pays for teacher pensions and school construction.

Aerial Speed Enforcement relies on police in the air tracking vehicle speeds below. When they spot a speeder, they radio troopers on the ground to nab the driver. The five deployments of traffic-monitoring aircraft since 2008 generated 87 total tickets to drivers, and not always for going too fast. Troopers also issued summonses for reckless driving and seat belt violations.

The single 2011 Aerial Speed Enforcement was over Route 460 in Surry County in the Hampton Roads area. State Police used the planes three times during a two-day sting in 2010 in Hanover and Washington counties and issued 53 tickets. 

The lone 2009 mission was canceled because of weather.

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