Saturday, November 26, 2016
"Speed limit enforced by aircraft" no more because of budget woes, but signs remain
The signs on Virginia interstates read “Speed Limit Enforced by Aircraft” – but look up and you won’t find an eye in the sky.
That’s because the Virginia State Police have lacked the money to fund the program for more than seven years.
Yet the signs remain.
It still perplexes new residents and visitors. What are these aircraft? Helicopters? Planes? Drones? Fighter jets or assault helicopters (as one popular online joke satirizes)?
The State Police get frequent inquiries about the signs, said spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
You likely won’t see planes, helicopters or drones monitoring speeders from above in the near future because budgets and staffing remain tight for the State Police. But those 425 signs erected around the state aren’t coming down either.
A Williamsburg resident recently asked the governor and a U.S. senator’s office about the signs. Neither, he said, had an answer.
He emailed The Pilot to see if the newspaper could find out why “Virginia wastes tax money maintaining a system of signs that are simply lies.”
The signs stay up because they’re legally required to be there, and, technically, the aerial program is still on the books if funding becomes available. It’s not just a scare tactic to deter speeders, officials say.
It would take more money to remove the signs than to let them be. VDOT says it costs little to nothing to maintain a sign that lasts up to 25 years, unless it’s damaged.
Drive along I-64 between the Greenbrier Parkway and Battlefield Boulevard exits in Chesapeake or I-664, north of Virginia Rte. 164, and you may notice a horizontal white line across the interstate. Then, a quarter-mile later, you’ll see another one. They’re strategically placed in problem areas around the state.
They’re easy to miss at 65 mph, but not hard to spot from above (or the Google Maps satellite view).
They’re also the key to how aerial surveillance caught speeders.
The planes are equipped with VASCAR (Visual Average Speed Computer And Recorder) units, devices that measure the time it takes a vehicle to travel between those two lines painted on the highway. That information is then used to calculate the vehicle’s speed.
If the driver was speeding, the trooper in the air radioed to one of three or four troopers on the ground, who would pull the vehicle over.
“Where we found it effective was getting that person who is whizzing in and out of lanes, going way over the speed limit,” Geller said. “Those individuals are easy to spot from the air and its truly the most effective way to get that aggressive driver.”
One reason the program is no longer used is money. The aerial operations used a Cessna plane that cost more than $150 an hour, plus a pilot, a trooper trained to use a VASCAR unit and at least three or four cars on the ground to pull over speeders or reckless drivers.
The planes were mainly used on holidays with heavy traffic. One Labor Day in 1999, troopers caught 42 speeders in three hours. In December 2008, they nabbed 14 speeders in four hours.
Troopers issued more than 5,000 tickets statewide between 2000 and 2008 using the program, according to an Associated Press story. Only 87 tickets were issued between 2008 and 2012.
And its unlikely there will be any more for a while.
“We have no plans to do them in the future,” Geller said.
The latest hot topic: drone use that could potentially make the aerial operation cheaper.
While Virginia changed its law in 2015 to allow law enforcement to use drones, it still requires a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to monitor traffic conditions. Drones can’t be flown over crowds or moving vehicles without permission from the FAA, says Matt Waite, a drone expert at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The State Police have no plans for that any time soon.
“We don’t have the money for it right now,” Geller said. “We’ve had discussions to see if there’s possibly a benefit to the public, but mainly for search and rescue operations.”
Posted by Kathryn on 2:55:00 PM