TICKETS SENT FROM ABOVE; STATE POLICE START USING AERIAL SURVEILLANCE TO CATCH SPEEDERS
Roanoke Times & World News -- The Virginia State Police's latest tool for catching speeders is 3,000 feet high. In the air, that is. That's about the altitude a police Cessna will be flying to track unsuspecting drivers below. So throw away your radar detector (which is illegal, by the way) and hang up your CB radio. If you're speeding, there's a good chance that a little white plane high in the air is going to spot you. And this time, you're not going to be able to talk your way out of a ticket. Five motorists learned the hard way Monday. That's when state police launched their "bear in the air" program, which allows them to track speeders by air and then radio locations to waiting patrol cars. For a few hours, Trooper-Pilot Pat Bruce flew his Cessna 182 high above Interstate 81 in the Roanoke Valley while a second trooper in the back seat used a special device, a visual average speed computer and recorder, to track the vehicles on the ground. Called VASCAR, this computerized speed detection system allows police to measure speed based on distance and time. That means no radar guns and no signal to tip off drivers, who probably won't have any idea they're being clocked until a trooper sounds his sirens. "People look in the air - they can't tell one plane from the other," Bruce said after helping nab three speeders in Botetourt County Monday morning. "So hopefully they won't know we're up there." The program, formally called aerial speed enforcement (the "bear in the air" moniker makes reference to the name that truckers assign to state troopers for their Smokey Bear-style hats), was made possible by one of 969 state laws that went into effect July 1. State police will use their four planes across the state to operate the program on Virginia's busy interstates. Although VASCAR has been used by the state police for years, it's only been used from patrol cars on the ground and then only in higher traffic areas, like Northern Virginia, Richmond and Tidewater. By being able to use the system in the air, police said they can pick out speeders and aggressive drivers more easily. "This extra pair of eyes in the sky will have a birds-eye view on I-81 and monitor motorists' actions which may not have been observed by a trooper on the ground," said Capt. Charles Compton, who commands the state police's 14-county Salem district. The program works like this: A trooper in an airplane will use the VASCAR machine to time motorists as they travel the interstate. From the air, that means the trooper is watching for a set of three white lines a quarter-mile apart, flipping a switch as a motorist crosses one of the lines and measuring the time and distance it takes to go a quarter-mile. A trooper waiting below is then given a description of the speeding vehicle. A Waynesboro man was nabbed after Trooper Butch McMurray, operating the VASCAR from the back seat of the Cessna, clocked a minivan hustling southbound about 85 mph. When Trooper Steve McChesney stopped the driver, he discovered the man was driving on a suspended license. It didn't take long after McChesney parked his car on the left shoulder on I-81 in Botetourt County, just south of the 156 mile marker, before Bruce was calling him on the radio again. "You got one coming to you in the left-hand lane," Bruce radioed just after 2 p.m. "A white pickup." Bruce kept visual contact as McChesney pulled in behind the Chevy S-10 pickup, confirming several times that the patrol officer had the right vehicle. Using the VASCAR, McMurray clocked the pickup at 77 mph as it crossed the 12-inch-wide white lines. And it wasn't until McChesney flipped on his blue lights and the driver pulled to the shoulder that the Cessna could be seen overhead. "She was real nice," McChesney said of the 38-year-old driver from Seymour, Tenn. "Didn't contest it. Didn't seem real surprised that there was an airplane over her head." State police said the "bear in the air" program will do more than just help spot speeding motorists. Compton said the program will serve as the latest in a series of initiatives the department has adopted since last year to make Interstate 81 safer. In February 1999, Gov. Jim Gilmore ordered stepped-up patrols of the interstate after a deadly wreck near Natural Bridge killed four people and injured 26 others. Since then, state police have issued 35,000 tickets during the so-called "saturated patrols," which are done at least once a week. The efforts appear to be working. By this time last year, there were 12 fatalities on the 148-mile stretch of I-81 that runs between Wythe and Rockbridge counties. As of Monday, there have been six fatalities along the same stretch of road. There have been no fatalities during the saturated patrols, Compton said. "There's no doubt that when we have increased troopers, the behavior of drivers is better," said Sgt. Tom Foster. "I believe the public has become more aware, particularly local drivers." But while the numbers of fatal wrecks are down in Western Virginia, a total of 401 motorists have died on Virginia highways so far this year. That's 23 more than this time last year. It's just another reason why the state police want to use every tool available to them, and why they're hopeful the "bear in the air" is another way to make the interstates safe. State police have also started using special laser guns - also undetectable to traditional radar detectors and easier to pinpoint specific vehicles - to track speeders. State police expect to use aerial speed enforcement in conjunction with saturated patrols during holidays, such as the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. But the plane could be above I-81 at any time to catch people unaware, police said. There is at least one set of white lines in each of Virginia's counties, with more on the way. "When we give fatal statistics, they are much more than statistical numbers," Compton said. "They represent a good neighbor, a cousin, a loving father, doting daughter, a caring son or a dear mother. They represent families who are torn apart due to the actions of someone who has decided to disobey the traffic laws of Virginia. It has to stop."