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The End Of Aerial Traffic Reports

News helicopter seen in flight from below
Helicopter for KIRO 7 (Seattle, Wash.) in 2012. Photo by Clemens Vasters.

One morning last week, I checked the traffic before I started out for what should be a 40-minute drive to our new Stamford, Connecticut office and saw there was trouble in the usual spots.

The merge points on the three highways I use were backed up, as they typically are during the morning rush. But experience told me that most of the backlog would clear by the time I reached those points. Sure enough, I arrived in my office 40 minutes after setting out.

I did not need to turn on the radio to get any of this information. And I certainly didn’t need somebody in an airplane or a helicopter to look down at my little piece of metropolitan New York City’s spiderweb of highways and inform me of their state. That would be so 20th century.

These days, Google Maps, Google-owned Waze and a variety of other competitors get their information from highway department sensors embedded in the roadways, cameras mounted in strategic locations and, most of all, from app users themselves, whose GPS-enabled devices let providers know exactly where drivers are and how quickly – or not – they are moving. On many newer cars, such real-time traffic data is integrated directly into the vehicle’s map display, so drivers need not (and should not) fiddle with their cellphones while navigating the expressways.

In due course, “airborne traffic reporter” will be a job description that goes the way of “video rental store clerk.” The stalwarts who are still doing this work today are almost certainly the last of their breed.

WTIC-AM, a radio station based in Farmington, Connecticut, just outside Hartford, recently announced it would stop using a traffic plane, instead joining the majority of traffic reporters in relying on earthbound reporting solutions like cameras. Considering the cost of maintaining and fueling an aircraft relative to the doubtful advantage it grants over other methods of gathering traffic information, it is obvious why many stations have already done the same and why many – if not most – others will shortly follow suit.

While I begrudge nobody their livelihood, this is a job category I don’t mind seeing pass into history. At its best, aerial traffic reporting is an inexact art, especially in a big metropolitan area like New York City or Los Angeles, and can often frustrate drivers. By the time you reach a certain point, what you heard about the situation on the traffic report may have very little to do with reality.

At its worst, however, this is dangerous work. People have died bringing traffic news to commuters, sometimes in very public ways. Perhaps the most horrific example, to my mind, is the crash that killed WNBC Radio’s Jane Dornacker and seriously injured helicopter pilot Bill Pate. Dornacker was in the middle of broadcasting when their helicopter crashed into the Hudson River due to a mechanical failure. When I looked up the details for this post, I was shocked to see that this incident occurred in 1986; it was so traumatizing that it felt as if it had happened more like 15 years ago than 30.

Nancy McCormick, a Cincinnati-based traffic reporter, died in another crash only about a month after Dornacker’s death. Los Angeles’ Bruce Wayne had also died when his plane crashed earlier that year. Wayne’s death, in turn, had evoked memories of an earlier California-based pilot, Max Schumacher, who was one of the first aerial traffic reporters and who died in a mid-air collision in 1966.

Walt Starling, a Washington-area traffic reporter, told The Washington Post in 1983, “I have had some difficulty getting life insurance.”

Many journalists have given their lives in order to bring information to the public, and for that we can be grateful. But there is no excuse for it to happen in an era when a traffic report from the sky is more about branding for a media outlet than about bringing timely information to listeners. Further casualties in that field would now be pointless as well as tragic.

Occasionally, traffic news and other types of news will intersect. A wildfire, a protest or a police action can create major traffic snarls, and reporting on them is part of reporting the larger story. Blizzards, hurricanes, floods and tornadoes can leave motorists, and many others, stranded; locating these people in a timely way can save lives. So news aircraft will not go away completely, at least for news organizations that can afford them. Some will doubtless be replaced by drones. And as long as news organizations field aircraft, there is the potential for accidents – for instance, a WNBC helicopter that crashed into a Brooklyn apartment building in 2004 while covering an unfolding crime in the area. For certain types of news, organizations may well see such risks as worthwhile.

But when it comes to making our morning commutes as seamless as possible, a man or woman in a plane is no longer required. Today’s traffic reports do just as well or even better with feet – or wheels – firmly on the ground.

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