Local News

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! Or Is It the Skyway Patrol?

Posted July 25, 1998 7:00 a.m. EDT

— Forget about checking behind roadside billboards and buying a fuzz buster. The North Carolina Highway Patrol may take to the sky to keep an eye on our roadways.

The General Assembly is considering repealing a 35-year-old law prohibiting the patrol from using aircraft to look for speeders and other law breakers.

In 1963, legislators revolted against ``eyes in the sky'' and blocked the Highway Patrol from having aircraft look for speeders or other lawbreakers.

Now, in an age of TV helicopters and security cameras, the question is no longer whether someone is watching.

Legislators favor a crackdown on aggressive drivers because some have come to fear their highway trips between Raleigh and their home districts, said Joe Stewart of the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.

``They say they always feel as though they're the slowest on the road, as if they're being targeted,'' Stewart said.

The change is part of the Legislature's annual adjustment to the state budget; the provision passed the House and Senate and is now under final consideration along with the rest of the spending bill.

About $270,000 dollars included would pay for flying the helicopters, for troopers' overtime and for unmarked vehicles.

The plan is to have an unmarked car, a marked car and sometimes a helicopter work together. The unmarked car would drive in regular rush-hour or construction zone traffic, looking for reckless drivers who are weaving, tailgating, and cutting off others in traffic.

The trooper in the unmarked car would radio to a nearby uniformed trooper to stop the car.

The Highway Patrol's 11 helicopters would hover over areas with high accident rates to spot and track aggressive drivers.

Public-safety officials say the roads are crowded as more drivers are driving more miles than ever before.

Drivers covered 36 billion miles on state roads in 1974 and more than twice that, 78 billion miles, in 1996, based on fuel-tax calculations.

There are more registered vehicles on the road, with 4.1 million in 1974 and 6.5 million in 1996.

At the same time, the state has not significantly increased its miles of road, with 75,000 miles in 1974 and 77,000 miles in 1996.