Traffic enforcement is not generally one of the most popular duties performed by police. Most people can attest to the unpleasantness of looking in the rear view mirror and seeing a squad car turn its lights on. However, there are two good reasons speed limits exist – they save lives and they save fuel. 

Even if they can be frustrating at times (“Sure, I know speed limits are important, but I REALLY need to get work on time today…”), everyone is made better off if speed limits are enforced in a consistent and sensible manner. Thus, The Cap Times’ reporting Wisconsin State Patrol’s use of aircraft has resulted in 2,197 traffic stops during August and September, despite being a little unsettling, is ultimately a positive for Wisconsinites.

The reality of driving is nearly everyone speeds to some degree. Going a couple of miles per hour over the speed limit, especially if that’s the speed of traffic, is at worst marginally more dangerous than following exactly the posted speed limit. Furthermore, it’s sometimes necessary for drivers to speed more significantly, but only for a specific situation, like getting around a large truck on the highway. However, the real danger arises when motorists completely shun the speed limit and travel more than ten or 15 miles per hour above the speed limit.

This is where the State Patrol’s planes can be most useful. Since planes have a much better, larger-scale view of situations on the road than regular squad cars, they can sort out cars that are actually driving dangerously from the ones who might just be speeding in a certain brief situation. Where a squad car setting a speed trap only has a good view of each for a few seconds, a plane can watch it travel for as long as is necessary to determine if the driver is driving dangerously. By using planes, the Patrol can focus their resources on the drivers who are posing the greatest threat to others on the road rather than just ticketing anyone who speeds. This is a net gain for drivers, since the roads will be safer and they will be less likely to be cited for a very minor offense.

Better, broader observational abilities, planes also can help keep a bad situation from becoming extremely dangerous. Under normal circumstances – with no air support – police have two options when a driver attempts to flee. They can either give chase, or let the car go. Both options have positives and negatives. Pursuing the driver puts police officers and other motorists at risk, but generally ends with an arrest. Letting the driver go keeps everyone safe, but also lets the bad guy win.

Neither option is ideal. However, if there is a plane observing the situation, the police can have the best of both worlds. The officers on the ground can let the car go while the plane continues to track it. Once the car stops – at home, at a store, at a gas station – officers can immediately move in to apprehend him or her, all without having to give a dangerous, high-speed chase. As a bonus, this can result in a rather comical situation, where just as a motorist thinks he or she has evaded the police, they appear seemingly out of nowhere to make an arrest.

The thought of planes in the sky watching over motorists certainly evokes some Orwellian feelings of discomfort. However, these planes don’t pose any more risk to privacy than do regular police cars. The only difference is that the planes can do their job better. As long as the use of these planes is not abused, they will make Wisconsin drivers better off.

Joe Timmerman ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in math and economics.