Highway signs throughout New York warn that when it comes to catching speeders, the long arm of the law extends even into the sky. "State Police aircraft used in speed enforcement," they read.

Actually, lead-footed drivers hitting the interstates for the Independence Day holiday can keep their eyes on the road. The New York State Police, who once routinely used planes to clock motorists, haven't written a single ticket in that manner since at least 2005.

"It hasn't been entirely eliminated," Sgt. Kern Swoboda, a State Police spokesman, said of the signs. "We still have the airplanes." But in these budget-conscious times, he said, launching aircraft to catch speeders just isn't fiscally prudent.

New York is one of several states to scale back the use of aircraft for traffic enforcement in recent years because of budget cuts or concerns about cost effectiveness.

Typically, aerial enforcement programs involve a plane, a pilot, a spotter to time vehicles as they travel between lines painted on the road and several cruisers to pull people over and issue tickets.

"That ain't cheap," Swoboda said. He added that updated laser technology now allows a trooper on the ground to get speed readings over long distances and in heavy traffic -- two situations where aircraft used to be superior.

"So what better way to do it than have three guys at a U-turn?" Swoboda said. "We found that it was far more efficient, and a lot less expensive."

A full accounting of which law enforcement agencies have curtailed the use of aircraft for speed enforcement was not available, but the list includes some states that had previously made robust use of the tactic.

The California Highway Patrol still has 15 planes used to catch speeders, but spokeswoman Fran Clader said that as the department's annual air operations budget has dropped from about $12 million to $8 million, aircraft are being used more to support searches and pursuits.

The Virginia State Police launched an aggressive aerial speed enforcement program in 2000 but largely abandoned regular patrols after 2007. Last year, it flew only one such mission, which resulted in tickets being given to 20 drivers, the department said. It flew four missions the year before, none in 2009 and only one in 2008.

In the meantime, workers have been gradually removing the aircraft speed enforcement warning signs along the New York State Thruway. About 11 still remained in June, a Thruway spokesman said.


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