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Driving You Crazy: When the State Patrol airplane clocks someone do they still need a ground unit to verify the speed?

Is the margin of error with the plane too great to be used in court?
Posted at 2:23 AM, Oct 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-01 04:24:02-04

Brian from Denver writes, “What’s driving you crazy? When the State Patrol airplanes clock someone speeding don’t they still need a ground unit to make a verified speed reading and then issue the citation? I thought the margin of error with the airplane timing was too great to be used in court. Also, aren’t aircraft extremely expensive to operate? How is this a cost effective means of traffic enforcement?”

Recently the Colorado State Patrol airborne unit sent out a tweet saying, “131 MPH. That’s how fast a driver was going on I-70 near Limon when our Aircraft unit found them. The excuse? “Trying to get back to college.” Don’t. Ever. Do. This.”

I asked the airborne unit about this. They tell me they don’t require verification from a ground unit after measuring a vehicle’s speed from the air. In the eyes of the law, it doesn’t matter whether you are clocked on the ground or from the air. “We have been using the time/distance calculation for more than 50 years and it is fully accepted in Colorado courts,” said Sergeant Dave Hall, director of flight operations. “It’s pretty simple math really. The ground unit is used to issue the citation.”

Today, Colorado owns and operates five aircraft through the State Aircraft Section. It was 70 years ago when the Colorado Department of Highways purchased their first plane to watch traffic from above. It took 16 more years for the Colorado State Patrol to go airborne in their own Cessna 182. State law back then didn’t allow for airborne troopers to write tickets if they saw someone speeding. The plane was used mainly for traffic observation. It wasn’t long after though that the state patrol started to experiment with airborne speed observation. They used lines painted on the pavement separated by a specific distance. An airborne trooper would use a stopwatch and a simple mathematical equation to calculate the speed of the vehicle.

After the experiments proved successful, Governor John Love signed an executive order in 1969 allowing the use of aircraft to record the speed of drivers. Just like today, the information from the plane was radioed from above to a waiting ground unit who would then make the traffic stop. The citations were deemed to be valid in court back then just as they are today.

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There is an old joke by pilots that goes, how do you make a million dollars in aviation? You start with two million dollars. Sergeant Hall says relatively speaking, the aircraft aren’t extremely expensive to operate. “The direct cost is for fuel, which isn’t that much. During our ops, we can address the driving behavior of several people and maybe save a life. We don’t just look for speeders, we also look for drunk drivers as well as aggressive drivers.”

The airborne unit has jurisdiction to patrol the entire state. Even though it is easiest for the patrol to fly the flat areas east of the mountains, I’m told they routinely fly the higher elevations as well. Troopers typically pick the highway and areas to patrol at random so there is no way for drivers to know when or where they are watching from the sky. Recently the airborne patrol has been concentrating over the particularly troublesome construction area of the I-25 gap project in Douglas County with great success. They can’t fly on bad weather days but still emphasize safe driving.

The five state-owned and operated aircraft are flown by four uniformed pilots and two civilian pilots who work part time in the aircraft section of the Colorado State Patrol, all out of Centennial Airport. All five airplanes are provided for the benefit of all Colorado government agencies including the Colorado State Patrol. The aircraft are available on a twenty-four hour basis providing transportation for state business. This service includes transportation of personnel, cargo, and prisoners, as well as observation and photographic flights.

So the next time you see one of the “speed checked by aircraft” signs along one of our highways you can be assured it is real.

Denver7 traffic anchor Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 20 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on iTunes , Stitcher , Google Play or Podbean.