- Associated Press - Saturday, July 12, 2014

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - He sees a lot of speeders, tailgaters and weavers during his daily traffic operations.

“I look for anything that just shocks my conscience,” he said while gliding above Pikes Peak International Raceway in a single-engine Cessna 182.

His eyes were focused on bugsize cars driving on a 2-mile stretch of Interstate 25 below him.

“My eye is naturally attracted to anything that’s moving out of place,” he said.

He pointed out an example.

“There’s a white car coming just under my wing right there,” Carlson said, looking down at the southbound lanes of the highway. “You can see how he just passed that truck, how fast it’s moving compared to the truck.

“It’s really easy to pick out those drivers.”

Minutes later, he spotted a silver car and had quickly grabbed one of two digital stopwatches attached to his yoke. Carlson banked his plane in a sharp turn to track it.

He started the time on the stopwatch as the car passed a white strip painted on the southbound shoulder of the highway and stopped it as the car passed another mark a half-mile away. Carlson clocked it at 88 mph; the driver had traveled between the marks in just about 20.5 seconds.

A trooper on the ground was waiting to catch up with the driver and issue a citation. Carlson tracked the car as it approached the trooper.

“Just coming under PPIR bridge right now. No. 2 in the left lane.”

A beat of time passed.

“All right. Out your left door.”

Within seconds of receiving detailed information about the driver’s behavior from Carlson, the trooper pulled out, flipped on his lights, ran the plates and issued a ticket.

At the same time the trooper in the ground was doing his part, Carlson confirmed he was behind the right car and provided more details about the violation.

“The SUV was traveling half way on the shoulder, and then when it saw you, it weaved halfway into the left lane, back into the right lane, and then over to the left lane,” Carlson reported.

“Gotcha,” the trooper said and then radioed up the plate number for Carlson to write down.

Those details are important, Carlson said, not just because he might use them in traffic court but also because he wants people to understand what led to the citation.

“A lot of times people don’t understand the airplanes,” he said. “They don’t understand how we clock them with stopwatches and distance and time and how that formula works,” he said. “I always give (troopers) the opportunity to explain everything so people understand what I do.

“It really helps because people really just think we’re magic up here.”

It might come as a shock to many Colorado drivers, but the “speed checked by aircraft” signs that dot the highways are telling the truth:

Someone is really up there watching.

Drivers may be unaware and even skeptical, but this type of enforcement is not unique to Colorado, and it’s not new. Troopers have patrolled the airspace above state highways since the 1960s.

“We’re really trying to find the most aggressive drivers that are on the highway,” said Colorado State Patrol Capt. Matt Secor, a former Army pilot who oversees the State Patrol’s aerial enforcement unit.

“We want to get those guys that are just menaces to people,” he added. “We don’t get them all, but we try.”

Weather permitting, the unit conducts about 1,000 hours of traffic enforcement every year, he said. The unit tries to put two of their three single-engine Cessna patrol planes in the air every day, and on days where pilots don’t go up, they’re assigned patrol duties on the ground.

Two planes are stationed in the Denver-metro area, and another is based in Grand Junction, but they patrol the entire state, Secor said.

“Typically, we will be over an area for about three hours to do enforcement,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll hit multiple locations in one day.”

Last year, state troopers wrote 127,910 citations, the State Patrol reported.

In a good year, the aerial enforcement unit assists with around 5,000 of those, Secor said.

That’s a small number in the grand scheme of things, but it’s not meant to be an all-encompassing solution, he said. The aircraft unit, which is budgeted to operate on about $400,000 a year, is one tool in a public safety toolbox designed to change drivers’ attitudes, he said.

“Since speed is a leading cause of crashes, we find areas where drivers consistently violate the law and cruise well above the posted limits on their daily commutes,” State Patrol spokesman Capt. Jeff Goodwin said in an email. “Anything we can do to get voluntary compliance from drivers and reduce injury crashes is what it is all about.”

Secor has seen problem areas get better.

“Years ago, we had a problem with the Fourth of July celebrations at Granby Reservoir. I was the pilot over in Grand Junction,” he said.

For two years, the State Patrol cracked down on reckless holiday drivers. By year three, Secor said, “you couldn’t buy a contact.”

It was the same story for traffic enforcement operations on U.S. 24 north of Colorado Springs.

“We hit it really hard for 90 days, then it dried up,” Secor said. “We made enough contacts, and we were able to change the attitudes of the folks up there driving.”

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Information from: The Gazette, https://www.gazette.com

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