- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

Virginia State Police, tired of being beaten by speeders with radar detectors, are taking to the air to catch lead-footed drivers under a new law that allows them to use airplanes to identify speeders.

"Bear in the Air," as the program referring to an old CB radio term for state troopers has become known, goes into effect Saturday, along with most of the other laws passed by the Virginia General Assembly this year.

The most high-profile of the new laws could be the state's requirement that public school students observe a minute of silence daily. The law has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, but will go into effect anyway.

Other newly passed traffic laws include stiffer penalties for drivers whose blood alcohol level is .20 and a prohibition on children riding in pickup truck beds.

But the new law most residents are likely to notice will be the aerial speed enforcement program and the innocuous painted white lines that have popped up on Interstates 95 and 66 and the Beltway last week are the key to the program.

State police are characterizing it as a way to get speeders who avoid radar by darting in and out of traffic or by using illegal radar detectors.

The new system will use VASCAR visual average speed computer and recorder a tool they've used on the ground for years.

A trooper will fly alongside a pilot in an airplane, picking out a vehicle and timing it as it travels the quarter-mile between markers. The VASCAR computer calculates average speed for that distance, and the trooper in the plane then radios to a trooper on the ground, identifying the vehicle and the speed, said police Lt. William Carter.

The trooper on the ground then pulls the vehicle over and tickets the driver.

Virginia Department of Transportation workers will have put down 101 sets of timing lines by the time the project is completed in September.

A set consists of 3-foot-wide lines, separated by a quarter-mile gap. Currently, there are 11 locations in Northern Virginia.

The local AAA is in favor of the "Bear in the Air" campaign. "Our feeling is right now we've got interstates that are fairly uncivilized, and part of that is people traveling at very high speeds," said Lon Anderson, a AAA spokesman, who said giving police another tool to catch aggressive and speeding drivers is a good thing.

But another driver-advocacy group, the Minnesota-based National Motorists Association, says the program has some flaws many of which will become apparent on congested Northern Virginia roads.

"Because it's basically a stopwatch, you're not going to have an extremely accurate time," said Eric Scrum, the association's spokesman.

Mr. Scrum warned motorists who go to court to challenge the ticket to demand that both the officer from the airplane and the one one the ground who issued the ticket are there to testify.

He also said situations could arise in which two similar vehicles the same color enter the speed-timing area about the same time, and the trooper in the air times one, radios to the trooper on the ground, and the ground trooper pulls over the wrong car.

A state police spokeswoman said that won't happen. The trooper in the air keeps his eye on the speeding car until the trooper on the ground has pulled the driver over.

She said troopers will have 40 hours of training before they are certified to run the VASCAR machines.

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