Eye in the sky to catch Calgary speeders

RCMP bring back aircraft speed traps to improve safety

By Robert Remington, Calgary HeraldOctober 16, 2009Comments (28)

A ircraft speed patrols are returning to southern Alberta highways after a 10-year hiatus, with emphasis on the Calgary-Banff corridor. There, and on the Queen Elizabeth II, lead foots are regularly clocked at Autobahn-like speeds of 160 km/h and higher.
Using a stopwatch and lines painted on the highway, airborne RCMP traffic officers in small planes will be clocking speeders and--more importantly, they say -- targeting aggressive drivers. Helicopters could be used in the mountains.
"What we want people to do is think about their driving habits, because you don't know when someone is watching," says RCMP Staff Sgt. Frank Deheer.
Air patrols, he notes, make radar detectors ineffective. Unless highway markers are obscured by darkness or by weather, there's no hiding from an eye in the sky.
Renewed aircraft patrols were announced one year ago by the RCMP, but are just now being implemented regionally. Cochrane RCMP will be using air patrols next month between Calgary and Banff on a random basis. Highway 2 to Edmonton will also be monitored from the sky.
Air-speed enforcement, which can only be used in daytime hours, involves an airborne officer relaying speed information to a patrol car on the ground.
Critics say the system is prone to human error.
"You have more than one hand in the pie -- a guy in an aircraft and a guy on the ground. The more people that are involved, the more things like that (human error) can happen," says Charlie Pester of POINTTS, which specializes in fighting traffic tickets for clients.
Pester calls it a cash grab.
"They used to use (aircraft) quite a bit, but my understanding it was a budgetary thing" that caused the air enforcement program to be cancelled, he said.
"They've probably found that this is a way to scare up money by increasing enforcement because ticket fines have gone up."
Fines for speeding increased dramatically five years ago and now range from $124 and three demerit points for being 20 km/h over the limit to $351 and six demerit points for being 50 km/h over the limit. Anything above 50 km/h over the limit also requires a mandatory court appearance.
An accumulation of 15 or more demerit points within a two-year period results in an automatic one-month licence suspension.
RCMP Cpl. Wayne Oakes said the air patrols are about public safety, not generating cash.
"I always say that speeding is one of the few taxes where you have a choice whether or not you want to pay it. If you don't want to pay it, don't speed," Oakes said.
Yet it is aggressive drivers, not speeders, that will be the focus of the air-speed enforcement system, he said.
"To intercept aggressive drivers, we ourselves have to drive aggressively. From a public safety perspective, the vantage point of being in the air gives us a critical, birds-eye view of noting the actions of such driving without putting the public at risk," said Oakes.
Deheer said the planes are another resource for police.
"The high-risk problem is really the focus of this," Deheer said. "Sometimes those people are extremely difficult to detect, depending on traffic volume. So, this is another tool."
Deheer said it is common to catch 10 violators a day doing 50 km/h over the limit on Highways 1 and 2.
Even on the two-lane Highway 93 between Banff and Jasper, speeding and aggressive driving are an issue.
On two July weekends this summer, 513 speeding tickets were issued on the Banff-Jasper highway, with 23 per cent going to speeders who were 50 to 59 km/h over the limit. Police clocked two vehicles going 70 km/h over the limit.
Several drivers were also charged with driving carelessly and following too closely.
Deheer and Oakes said the small planes are cost-effective.
rremington@theherald. canwest.com
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