BRISTOL, Va. — Travel along Interstate 81 in Southwest Virginia, and you’ll see signs that read “Speed limit enforced by aircraft.”
It’s not true.
The General Assembly approved aerial speed enforcement in 2000 under Gov. Jim Gilmore, but a lack of funding and staffing within the Virginia State Police forced the agency to stop using the program years ago.
But the big, black signs — 425 of them across the state — remain.
"As effective as aerial speed enforcement can be for speed enforcement and traffic safety on highways across the state, it is cost and resource intensive,” said Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for the State Police. “VSP has not conducted aerial speed enforcement for over five years.”
The program used Cessna planes, which cost more than $150 an hour to operate, according to Geller. Factor in other costs, including pilots, training, computer software and at least three to four cars and troopers on the ground, and the program became too costly, she said.
The signs are legally required to stay up because the VSP’s aerial enforcement program is still on the books and could possibly be reinstated if funding became available. Geller said.
It would take more money to remove the signs and put them back up, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. It costs the state agency next to nothing to properly maintain a sign for at least the next 25 years.
Whether you live in the Mountain Empire or are just traveling through, the large signs get the attention of motorists.
Vernon Roswell, 70, of Arlington, Virginia, was taking a break at the welcome center along I-81 in Abingdon, Virginia, earlier this week. He said he never understood how planes catch speeders.
“I’ve seen the signs on the interstate, but have never seen a plane, a single plane in the sky,” Roswell said. “It makes you wonder what kind of technology is being used for the program.”
Roswell isn’t the only one taken aback by the signs.
Several years ago, Callie Counts, 26, of Bristol, Virginia, said she remembers seeing the planes in the area of exits 13 and 14. But she said she’s confused by them now.
“I always remember seeing the planes around that area and wondered why they were flying around,” Counts said. “The signs posted certainly don’t deter anyone from slowing down.”
VSP’s aerial speed enforcement planes use VASCAR, which stands for Visual Average Speed Computer and Recorder, according to Geller. The system computes the speed from two fixed variables and the time it takes a vehicle to travel that distance.
Aerial speed enforcement can only be conducted on stretches of highway where painted lines exist. Geller said the white lines have been properly measured and certified for the program.
In Southwest Virginia, those white lines used by the VASCAR software are located on I-81 at the 19-mile marker and the 27-28 mile markers in Washington County, according to Geller.
“It’s not a scare tactic to stop speeders,” Geller said. “As you enter Virginia, you’ll see signs advising you of all speed enforcement measures authorized for use by law enforcement.”
Virginia isn’t the only state that has discontinued its aerial enforcement program. While Tennessee doesn’t have a program in place, neighboring Maryland ended its program in 2012.
One possibility that has been discussed: Could drones be used to make the aerial operation cheaper?
While Virginia changed its law in 2015 to allow law enforcement to use drones, the Federal Aviation Administration still requires a waiver to use them to monitor traffic conditions, according to the FAA’s website.
But VSP has no plans to use drones, according to Geller.
“Drones would be impossible,” Geller said. “State Police policy on aerial speed enforcement requires the certified VASCAR trooper to be in the aircraft and maintain — from overhead — constant visual contact with the speed vehicle. The trooper maintains that visual in order to make certain the trooper on the ground stops and cites the correct violator.”
Even though air enforcement isn’t being used across the state, VSP said it’s important for drivers to realize that there are just as many troopers in cars who are watching for speeders.
“We recognize that the best deterrence to speeding and other illegal driving actions is having a blue and gray patrol car in every motorist’s rear-view mirror,” said Capt. R.P. Chappell Jr., division commander for the Virginia State Police Wytheville Division. “The public benefits from our troopers having a variety of enforcement methods and equipment available to them to effectively enhance and impact traffic safety on Virginia’s highways.”