Editor's note: This article was posted on April 1 -- April Fools' Day. It is satire, and thus, while occasionally referencing reality, it does not represent the opinions or intended actions of any real people.
The next time you're on the road and thinking of putting the pedal to the metal, think again: The Palo Alto Police Department will soon be adding a new weapon to its arsenal -- drones that can catch speeding drivers.
A fleet of 12 quadcopters, also known as UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles, has been ordered as part of a test of the popular technology for civic purposes, the Weekly has learned.
A city official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that although the idea has generated some controversy within City Hall due to potential civil-liberties issues, the department is moving ahead with the $236,000, six-month experiment.
The drones will be deployed along three major thoroughfares where speeding has spiked in recent years: Alma Street, Middlefield Road and Foothill Expressway. Each drone will be equipped with a video camera, on-board speedometer and a ticket-printer and will be programmed to patrol the entire length of the city.
Once a speeding vehicle is spotted, the drone will discreetly follow it for 1/8 of a mile, video-recording it, snapping a picture of its license plate and noting its average speed. When the car comes to a stop, the drone will print out a speeding ticket and deposit it on the car's windshield.
To ensure the driver is aware of the ticket, the drone will linger over the hood until it detects the driver's eye contact, after which it will fly off.
"It's the latest method of cutting down on dangerous driving, and it's been incredibly effective elsewhere," the official told the Weekly. In cities where the drones have been used, the accident rate due to speeding has plummeted by an average of 47 percent (although, he admitted, accidents caused by people looking up at the drones while driving have increased).
As a side benefit, some towns have seen their revenues from speeding tickets skyrocket.
Clatchamoo, Oregon, launched its drone program last summer, prompted by the irritation of residents over lead-footed out-of-towners who were racing along the otherwise quiet mountain roads.
"Like bats out of hell," said Clatchamoo Sheriff Denise Barns. "They had no respect for our safety or our asphalt, so we sent the drones after 'em."
"Sure, some may call it 'Big Brother' when they're being tailed by a drone," said Barns, who heard "an earful" from people caught in the act. "But guess what? If you're doing the right thing, the drones aren't going to bother you."
Within the first month, the program netted nearly $60,000 in paid tickets, money that enabled local leaders to build a Lewis and Clark-themed water park.
As expected, Clatchamoo civil libertarians protested, citing an invasion of privacy, the dangers of a government database of surveillance video and the fact that no one asked for their opinion first.
"It was all 'Fourth Amendment' this, 'infringement' that," Barns recalled. "Finally, we had a breakthrough when someone had the bright idea to use some citation revenue to add a recreational marijuana dispensary in the community center.
"Well, that helped them to see the light," Barns said.
Among the benefits that Palo Alto police are expecting from the drone experiment are cost savings -- drones do the work of traffic cops but do not require medical benefits, pensions or doughnut breaks -- and the opportunity to re-assign Palo Alto's patrol officers to other beats, according to internal documents obtained by the Weekly.
"The traffic team could be used for higher purposes vital to the protection and safety of the city," one memorandum states, "like escorting Democratic leaders to their fundraisers and enforcing the city's ban on leaf blowers."
To ensure no one is taken by surprise by the new patrol force, publicity materials have been developed, including street signs that warn drivers, "Drone Zone ahead," and stickers to be affixed to city vehicles with the slogan, "Heed the speed. Postpone the drone," accompanied by the image of a smiling cartoon drone wearing a police badge.
If successful, the internal documents state, the drone fleet could be expanded to also target distracted drivers, litterers, cigarette smokers and residents who throw compostable materials into their black garbage carts.
Asked about the potential privacy concerns that could arise from program, Palo Alto City Manager Jim "Bo" Keane simply rolled his eyes and said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the experiment. However, he then said that even if such a program were to get off the ground, the impact on citizens' privacy would be negligible.
"People do realize, don't they, that we've got police-cruiser cams, red-light cams, building-security cams, officer-worn body cams, smartphone cams, Google Glass, and other ways of recording your every move?" he asked. "Really. What's one more camera?"
Happy April Fools Day!