NMA E-Newsletter #236: Mors Ab Alto

We’ve all seen those “Speed Enforced by Aircraft” signs, and the first question that comes to mind is: Do they actually still do that? The answer is yes, but probably not as much as you think.

Airplanes are expensive to maintain and operate ($150-$200 per hour, not including labor costs). Budget constraints in recent years have caused many states to curtail their aerial enforcement operations. Virginia, for example, has virtually abandoned its program. Likewise, California has drastically cut back on its aerial speed traps, although a spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol won’t say by how much.

There are exceptions, however. In Wisconsin, after years of cutbacks, state police have stepped up their aerial enforcement efforts, thanks to federal grants. Employing four planes and a dozen pilots, the State Patrol Air Support Unit plans to fly enforcement “missions” (their term) throughout the summer.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol claims to have 15 uniformed officer-pilots, two American Eurocopter turbine-powered helicopters, and 14 Cessna airplanes. A spokesperson says airborne enforcement is “an integral piece” of the state’s highway safety program.

Of course, some of this is just hype, designed to give the impression that the police are everywhere and will surely catch you if you exceed the speed limit, even by a few miles per hour. Or, as one NMA member puts it, “Like the TSA, aircraft speed limit enforcement is a part of a ‘security theater.’ If they could, they would love to land behind you with their lights flashing.”

Yes, they would. The whole mindset is reminiscent of the motto of the United State Air Force 7th Bombardment Wing, “Mors Ab Alto.” Translated from the Latin, it means “Death from Above,” which also happens to be the slogan painted on a military helicopter from the 1979 Vietnam movie “Apocalypse Now.”

Don’t misunderstand. Aerial speed enforcement does take place in many parts of the country. In fact, one of our East Coast activists recently received an airborne-based speeding ticket on the Maine Turnpike. (Check out our state-specific pages to see if your state uses aerial enforcement.)

In the unlikely event you receive a ticket from the heavens, the key is to realize that both the  airborne officer and the officer on the ground must be in court to testify. If either is absent, move for a dismissal of the charges. For more specific information on how to fight airplane tickets, look here and here.

The continued reduction in airborne traffic enforcement sounds like good news at first, but consider what could replace it. Law enforcement officials are always looking for more efficient ways to conduct business and may use budget cuts as an excuse to push cheaper alternatives like drones.

Surveys show little public support for routine traffic enforcement via drones, and policymakers assure us that domestic drone use will be limited to discrete, highly-controlled actions. But we know better. Airborne ATMs will eventually take to the skies in pursuit of ever more ticket revenue. When that happens, the police really will be everywhere, watching everything.

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