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driving concerns

Are those "speed enforced by aircraft" signs on highways a bluff? I've never seen a plane flying above the highway. — Kim, Toronto

Look, up in the sky: It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a $75 speeding ticket.

"The signage is 100 per cent accurate," says Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Peter Leon. "The plane flies 1,000 hours a year and we get about 5,000 Highway Traffic Act infractions."

The signs aren't just hot air — the OPP's Cessna 206 has been patrolling above Ontario roads since 2008.

The plane carries at least two officers — the pilot and a spotter. The spotter, well, spots speeders, unsafe passers, and aggressive and impaired drivers.

Then, they radio the report to the ground, where patrol cars are dispatched to intercept the speeders and pull them over, just like in a normal traffic stop.

"They can't see licence plates from up there," Leon says. "We give a detailed description of the vehicle — for example, a silver truck with a black tonneau cover."

Hawkeye, but no radar

The plane doesn't use radar. All the spotter needs is a stop watch.

"Sometimes you'll see markings on roadways — the person in the aircraft has a stop watch and times how long cars take to go between the arrows," Leon says. "They can determine the speed of the vehicle and issue a ticket."

Do the tickets hold up in court? For example, couldn't you say you were the wrong silver truck?

"Usually the plane will stay with the vehicle until they know that it's been stopped," Leon says.

If the ticket is contested, the spotter and the officer who pulled the car over will have to go to court to testify.

Police generally don't announce when the plane is going to be on patrol, Leon says.

The plane, ordered by then-OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino, cost $1.4 million, including staffing and start-up costs. Before that, the OPP had plane patrol from 1965 to 1981, but the program was grounded, partially due to cost.

No speed drones, yet

There was a report in April — on April 1st, in fact — that Lloydminster, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, was the first city in Canada to use drones to monitor speed at intersections.

"Yes, that was April Fools," said Lloydminster Meridian Booster reporter James Wood. "However, people did take it quite seriously until they realized the joke."

There are no reports of police using drones to catch speeders, although some cities use them to photograph accident scenes. A 2012 U.S. poll found that 67 per cent were against drone speed traps.

Air patrol after fatal crashes

Some other provinces have stepped up their air patrols.

For example, In 2009, Alberta's program soared again after it had been suspended in the '80s. In 2013, Alberta increased the helicopter patrol area after a 2012 crash on Northern Alberta's highway 63 that killed seven people.

BC added two traffic safety helicopters in the lower mainland in 2005 and 2009. Further north, police also use a plane to catch speeders.

"Some areas/roadways are unsafe for officers to be roadside with a laser or stationary radar so we rely on other means to monitor speed," says RCMP Corporal Ronda Rempel, with E Division Traffic Services, in an email statement. "In many cases, the helicopters can monitor and determine speed from an elevation that they are not even detected by the motorist."

The air patrol helps police stop speeders and other risky drivers before they cause crashes, Rempel says.

"Speed is the number one contributing factor in fatal collisions in B.C. and we employ a variety of methods to reduce the harm on our roadways," Rempel says.

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