Airborne traffic enforcement practically a thing of the past 

click to enlarge Only 362 speeding citations were made by air out of 165,752 Bay Area tickets in 2009, the only year for which data are available. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Only 362 speeding citations were made by air out of 165,752 Bay Area tickets in 2009, the only year for which data are available.

Despite dozens of signs warning Bay Area drivers that airplanes are tracking their speed, few motorists are actually receiving tickets that way.

Airborne traffic enforcement has nosedived due to budget cuts at local police departments, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Jeff Moring.

Police departments also are using more modern, cost-effective technologies in squad cars to nab speeders, Moring said.

But you wouldn’t know it from all the highway signs that warn drivers they’re being watched from above. The San Francisco Examiner recently spied several dozen such signs on the Peninsula along state highways 17 and 92, as well as Interstate 280.

“Do we still do it? Yes,” Moring said. “Do we do it as much as we used to? No.”

Exactly how often airplanes are now used to track speeders is unclear. Speed enforcement data for air operations is hard to come by. The only data available is for 2009, in which the air unit produced just 362 out of a total of 165,752 speeding citations issued in the Bay Area.

Beyond that, the numbers are vague. But what’s clear is that the air ops are used in fewer and fewer speed enforcement missions, Moring said.

Many smaller police departments can no longer afford the $170 to $200 it costs per hour to operate highway patrol aircraft. That cost has shifted air enforcement responsibilities to the agency’s Napa-based Air Operations Office. But the air fleet also is limited. With only two Cessna airplanes and a staff of 26 — some of whom pilot the two helicopters — the agency must prioritize how it uses those resources.

“If there’s a crime with an active search, we’ll get called to find the bad guy,” Moring said. “It all boils down to budget.”

The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office uses its narcotics forfeiture fund to finance the operation of its one aging aircraft, Deputy Rebecca Rosenblatt said. But its volunteer pilots aren’t looking for speeders, Rosenblatt said. Their efforts are strictly reserved for other kinds of law enforcement.

Newer technologies also are making air traffic enforcement obsolete. Many law enforcement agencies have adopted car-borne laser speed-tracking technology, which is far cheaper to operate than air units.

“One person in a squad car can sit in one location and nail car after car,” Moring said. And overall, LiDAR technology is considerably more cost-effective than using aircraft, CHP Officer Arturo Montiel said.

In contrast, aircraft speed enforcement is more complex and uses a technique called pacing. By matching a fixed point on the airplane to a potential speeder, officers time the distance between two marks on the road and thus can determine a vehicle’s speed, Moring said.

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