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Look! Up in the Sky, It’s a Bear!

I was wondering how aircraft patrols work in conjunction with ground officers. Do drivers only have to worry about them on clear days? What kinds of areas are patrolled by aircraft? How does the pilot determine someone’s speed?

If you want to see a line of big-rigs cool their jets, just broadcast over your CB that there is a ‘bear in the air’ and that will do it.  For those of you that are not citizen band radio aficionados, a bear or smokey is a highway patrol officer.  The term came from Smokey Bear who wears a hat similar to many highway patrol officers.  Speed enforcement with aircraft is a very useful tool.  All marked CHP vehicles have radios that are capable of talking with not only dispatch centers and other CHP vehicles, but with CHP aircraft (planes and helicopters).  Not every CHP vehicle has a citizen band (CB) radio, but many officers do have them installed in their vehicles, especially if they work commercial enforcement or are assigned rural areas.  Back in the 80’s when I was assigned to the Fresno area I had a CB handle of ‘Bad News Bear’.  I found that very appropriate as I delivered my news of a citation to various motorists.  For the most part truck drivers were very courteous and provided me with information on suspected impaired drivers, open container violations, children that were not secured in their seat belts.  Pretty much anything to keep me busy, so that I wasn’t messing with them.  Back to the airplane.  Generally the aircraft works in conjunction with ground units in rural or open areas were regular enforcement may be hampered and clear skies.

The helicopter doesn’t generally work speed enforcement, but rather the airplane.  Fuel costs are much lower for the fixed wing.  Once a section of roadway has been selected for enforcement, the aircraft pilot and ground units are assigned their own radio frequency so that their radio traffic does not interfere with normal CHP operations.  The number of ground units varies depending on the number of units available and not assigned to other details.  Generally two to five units will work together.  The ground units will station themselves at or near the stretch of roadway where the aircraft will be working.  Once the pilot has determined a vehicles speed to be in violation, he will contact the ground unit and provide them with a vehicle description and speed.  Once the ground unit which is generally stationed on an on-ramp, enters the freeway, the pilot and ground unit confirms the vehicle and the ground unit makes the enforcement contact.  Once a citation is issued the ground unit provides the pilot additional information that the pilot notes for any future court appearances.

The aircraft pilot will observe traffic and upon observing a vehicle traveling noticeably faster than other traffic or at a speed he estimates is in excess of the posted speed limit, the pilot will pace the suspect vehicle by matching speed.  There are many technical issues involved including airspeed, calibration and many other aspects of which the pilots (all of which are CHP officers) are trained and qualified in.

Should a violator elect to go to court, both the ground unit officer and pilot will be in attendance to present each of their roles and observations involving the violation.

And what are the rules these days about smoking in cars. I know there is a law where people can’t smoke with children in the car, but can a smoking driver be pulled over on that alone? Also, what about tossing butts out the window? What kind of fines and penalties exist for that? I knew a guy who chose to do community service and clean up the highway rather than pay a pretty high fine.

Remember those good ol’ days when you were stuck in the backseat of the family sedan and your mom and dad where smoking up front, but mom had the wing window open so the smoke wasn’t so bad that they could see out the windshield.  No one was concerned about secondhand smoke.  The Marlboro Man was the man.  Well thankfully someone stepped up on behalf of California’s children and said, smoke all you want, just don’t do it with kids in the car.  The Health and Safety Code states; It is unlawful for a person to smoke a pipe, cigar, or cigarette in a motor vehicle, whether in motion or at rest, in which there is a minor. For the purposes of this section, “to smoke” means to have in one’s immediate possession a lighted pipe, cigar, or cigarette containing tobacco or any other plant.

The code further goes on to state; A law enforcement officer shall not stop a vehicle for the sole purpose of determining whether the driver is in violation of this article.

Like most code violations, it is up to the officer to take enforcement action.  If I had observed a vehicle in which there were small children in the vehicle and someone was smoking in the vehicle, I’d be checking for gloves in the glove compartment or fuel cap on too tight, whatever it takes to correct that problem.  Probably a good thing I’m retired.

For purposes of this section a minor refers to someone under the age of 18, but can be used in certain areas (such as gambling and the consuming of alcohol) to define someone under the age of 21.

As far as throwing a cigarette out the window of your vehicle; No person in any vehicle and no pedestrian shall throw or discharge from or upon any road or highway or adjoining area, public or private, any lighted or nonlighted cigarette, cigar, match, or any flaming or glowing substance.

The fine for this offense is $390.00.  I personally believe that the violator should have to work an entire fire season on the front lines on their first offense, but then again, it’s probably a good thing I’m retired.  The courts do offer the violator the opportunity for community service in lieu of most of the fine, but that has to be worked out with the probation department and approved by the court.

So keep your eyes and attention on the roadway.  Don’t worrying about the bear in the air and if you must smoke in your vehicle, please take into consideration the health of your passengers and while doing all of this, please go out and enjoy the ride.

Monty Hight is a retired California Highway Patrol officer and Public Information Officer. He is the North State AVOID Campaign’s Public Information Officer. He lives in Redding. More information on AVOID can be found here.

Monty Hight

Monty Hight is a retired California Highway Patrol officer and public information officer. He is the North State AVOID Campaign’s spokesman. He lives in Redding.

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