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If you are driving in one of nineteen states that emplo... If you are driving in one of nineteen states that employs airplane radar, it is in your best interest to drive under the speed limit even if you don't see any police cars around. (Getty Images)

Imagine this: It's a gorgeous spring day in Miami and you're thoroughly tempted to lower the top of your rental car and push the power pedal a little too hard in a bid to break free from the traffic crush on the Palmetto. But, though there may not seem to be a heavy police presence on the freeways on this particular day, you can be pretty sure that someone up in the sky is keeping a close eye on speeding vacationers and the massive traffic tailbacks they're trying to avoid.

Welcome to Florida, and aviation law enforcement from the state's Highway Patrol. It's one of the few states in the U.S. that employs aircraft to monitor speeders reckless drivers and, sometimes, soon-to-be felons fleeing a police pursuit (Nevada and Minnesota are among a dozen others). And if you never quite realized what those strange white lines on freeways mean, well, now you will.

States that Enforce Speeding Laws From the Air Include:

California
Florida
Illinois
Louisiana
Maine
Maryland
Massachusetts
Minnesota
Nebraska
Nevada
New Jersey
North Dakota
Ohio
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Texas
Viginia
Washington
Wisconsin

Flight Captain Matt Walker, the Florida Highway Patrol's chief pilot, says his job primarily involves monitoring motorists' speed between these painted white lines, which are placed a quarter-mile apart in frequent intervals.

Surprisingly, aviation enforcement doesn't involve radar: it's a straightforward stopwatch time over distance equation that allows a pilot to work out whether a driver has broken the speed limit. Captain Walker, having clocked a motorist driving too fast, then radios the speeding car's information to a waiting state trooper, or ground unit, who stops the car and issues a citation.

That is, if the driver stops. Sometimes, Walker says, they don't, a felony offense. But this is where aviation enforcement really comes into its own. In certain cases, rather than pursuing a fleeing motorist, which can be dangerous for all involved, an order will be given for the troopers to stand down but the pilot will still pursue the driver. Occasionally, the driver will head home, or even go shopping, completely unaware that his movements have been tracked from the air. Planes, after all, operate much more quietly than the helicopters often employed in other states in such pursuits. When the driver is quickly apprehended on the ground, usually they're shocked to hear they'd been tracked from high above.

"The troopers will back off and we'll follow the vehicle," Walker said. "When the person doesn't see the troopers' lights, he'll pull off and stop or he'll drive to his house. And as he's going into his house, the troopers are coming around the corner.

"It takes the fleeing portion out of the pursuit. Sometimes he'll still drive recklessly but the majority of the time he'll operate within speed limits if he thinks nobody is chasing him."

Walker says that a fleet of seven Cessna fixed-wing aircraft operates in the skies above Florida. The combined fleet delivers some 45,000 citations on average each year, and speed will be a factor in about 38,000 of these citations. The rest of the citations are made up of secondary factors, if the driver is drunk or not wearing a seatbelt, for example, or is driving on a suspended license. He says about 150 arrests are made each year where a pilot has spotted a clearly impaired driver, and aircraft enforcement results in the recovery of about 50 stolen vehicles annually.

"The primary use of aircraft is for traffic enforcement," Walker said. "The pilot has a stopwatch and observes traffic going down the roadway. He activates the stopwatch on the first line and calculates the average speed over the quarter mile.

"We'll say, 'the vehicle is a red pickup truck in the inside lane, number 5 behind you, off to your left now, now he's number 1. The trooper looks out his window and will pull in behind that vehicle. We confirm the time and speed and the pilot will return to the lines and do it over again."

The most challenging days for Walker and his team of pilots are busy holidays with heavy traffic and when the weather takes a turn for the worse. He says in those situations, or when a storm is looming, the fleet will be grounded. "We do not fly in inclement weather," he says.

Walker, who was born and raised in Florida, says that any prospective pilot must have logged at least one year as a regular state trooper and 500 hours of flight time and gained a commercial or instrument rating. He says many pilots were former civilian fliers who paid for their lessons out of their own pocket, although they can gain the qualification when they're going through the police training academy. Walker was a trooper for five years before he took to the skies, and now spends about five hours a day in the air. He also has to testify in court should a motorist decide to challenge a citation.

David Haenel, a defense lawyer at fightyourticket.com, has gotten to know many of the FHP pilots well in his long career fighting speeding tickets in Florida courts. He says he has won many cases challenging the basic equipment used to issue a citation -- including radio and the three stopwatches that pilots may use to clock a vehicle -- and discrepancies in the timing of an issued ticket.

He says that a pilot must prove that their stopwatches -- which must be of a certain brand -- have been calibrated in the last six months. He says a description of the car, its time and its speed must be written on the ticket, and that the citation's reliability must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. Which means that if there is a discrepancy between the time a pilot says he contacted the trooper and the time the trooper wrote on the ticket, even by a minute, Haenel has grounds to get the citation dismissed.

"First and foremost typically a client will tell me, 'I didn't see the plane in the air'," Haenel said. "But I want to know the locations of where the lines are, if the ticket is written in the appropriate venue [or county] if the troopers come from different stations, if the ticket is valid on its face."

"Every inconsistency goes in the benefit of the driver. The time on the citation is usually the most critical. If the pilot says 3.59, but the ticket's at 3.58, or 4.01, sometimes I don't even take these to trial."

Tread warily the next time you're tempted to put your foot down in Florida. You never know who might be watching. Or from where.



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  • 495 Comments
      • 6 Months Ago
      they lie on the ground, now they get to lie in the air too.. cops need to put their energy into real crime like drunk driving or homicides an theft.. speeding is a way of life and we keep getting reamed by these pigs
      • 6 Months Ago
      Tell Big Brother to get a life and quit spying on us! Their is no "freedom" in this country anymore! You have to watch your back with everything you do these days. I agree that otherwise law abiding citizens are probably doing what the "need" to do when they have to pay these "corrupt" fines and "court costs" for some silly speeding ticket issued from the "AIR"! What COURT COSTS? One normally just sends in the citation with their DAMN payment!!! Money hungry system is all I have to say! I want to move to Europe or Australia!!!!
      wconell
      • 6 Months Ago
      While they spend all that time and money doing that, some poor women just a block away is getting raped, a man shot, a drug deal going down and the drug cartels are laughing. Yea, but" Bubba got him a speeder going 10 mph too fast". Sad!
      dancinhans
      • 6 Months Ago
      Imagine if no one were to get caught for any speeding in a months time, the states couldn't afford to have the planes fly. Let's try.
      • 6 Months Ago
      I live in NV and ride a bicycle. Last week, riding through one of these painted roadside sections, the beginning of which even had a big airplane painted next to it. I decided to check the distance on my cycling computer between the 1/4 mile sections and found a difference in two of the four sections. It wasn't off by much, but it was off. The other two sections were right on the money. I think if I ever got a ticket from the air, I'd go back and check the distances over the section I'm ticketed for. If found to be wrong...in my favor or not...I'd fight it. May as well let a judge know the sections are not correct and let him decide before I just fork over the cash to the state...not to mention my insurance company.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Type-o... that's starting and stopping the pilots stop watch.
      jayde1958
      • 6 Months Ago
      Not only does the copy who cites you have to show up in court. The one who clocked you in the aircraft also must be present. Now here is EXACTLY HOW YOU BEAT IT. You also supena the person from the state traffic division who paced off and painted the markers that the cop in the aircraft used to clock your speed. If the person who paced off and painted the markers doesn't show up. NO TICKET. Only the person who paced off and painted the marks is the ONLY person who can sware in a court of law that the measurements were true. You cant beat the stop watch in the aircraft. But that guy also must be present.
      sylvan339
      • 6 Months Ago
      Is speeding that much of a pressing issue that we are willing to spend money on planes to catch speeders? This is a joke. Speed limits are being used as money making devices for local police depts. How many tickets will they have to issue to justify the expense of a fleet of planes?
      Harry Hurt
      • 6 Months Ago
      The officer in the aircraft cannot see if the occupants are wearing seat belts, dummy. It is the officer on the ground that discovers this. They also have charts to calculate the speed, not mathematics in their head, on paper, or a calculator. Also, the officer on the ground verifies the calculation on a similar chart. When I was about 19, (1964) an officer came to the little grass airport where I was flying. The rules were not as strict then, and the trooper let me ride with him. The aircraft was a Piper PA-18. He let me fly the aircraft around the marks on the highway while he handled the stopwatches, charts, and radio. We bagged a whole bunch of lawbreakers that day. Even in that day, some people were hostile toward the police, and I was critisized for taking part. I just replied, "If you don't like the police, next time your life is in danger, call a hippie."
      • 6 Months Ago
      Just happened to read two other comments. First; yes, some states DO "post" to other states; I once had to pay what I knew was a phony speeding citation in Tennessee (that I planned to ignore), when I went to renew my driver's license in California. Second; if you read the article carefully, you can surmise that 38,000 of the 45,000 citations were for speeding, and the other 7,000 were for "secondary" violations, such as "no seat belt", "document" problems such as "no current driver's license or insurance", "illegal configurations", DUI, etc., observed by the "stopping" officer, after the "stop"..
      DBurk1
      • 6 Months Ago
      I talked to a guy one time that said that the best way he found to get back at the cops sitting in the median or in there favorite hiding spot. Is that he just carried some roofing nails or screws in the car with him & when he went past one of there hiding spots he would chunk a handfull over there. He said that was the only way he could fight back. Do state police carry a spare tires with them? Do they change there on tires.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Dangerous speeding is worse around Miami than anywhere I've ever driven. Anything that will slow down the idiots (and there are a lot of them) or get them off the road is a plus.
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