The cat and mouse game between the law enforcement community and those of us who stretch the boundaries of speed limits is a constantly escalating battle. Most of the heavy artillery is in the hands of the police but drivers are not totally defenseless.
This battle started in the early ’70s, even before the government-mandated 55 mph speed limit was instituted in the aftermath of the OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973. Even before the dreaded and despised 55 mph speed limit, the nascent radar detector industry was born with the very first units: the Fuzzbuster, Snooper and Radar Alert dash-top units. These crude units, passive in nature, a far cry from today’s high-tech units, gave drivers a measure of protection from the equally crude X band radar guns that were in use at the time.
Over the years each side upped the ante. Law enforcement used more sensitive and accurate guns, were allowed more frequencies (K, Ka bands) and over the last decade have deployed laser guns to target speeders. In addition, unmanned speed detection cameras and red light cameras strategically deployed at dangerous intersections have made it virtually impossible to escape the long arm of the law.
The results of speeding citations are measured three ways. First is how it allows local jurisdictions to fatten its coffers with costly fines. But more insidious are how insurance companies use moving violations to increase premiums. Beyond the issues of revenue, there still remains the concerns by police of the safety issues that come from excessive speed. The reality is if you drive, at some point you’ll experience that sinking feeling that comes from seeing flashing lights in your rearview mirror and an officer appearing at your window asking for your license, registration and insurance card. It’s never any fun.
Countermeasures are available. First is simply to abide by all posted limits, but on many expressways that means you’ll be relegated to the slow lane along with most trucks and senior citizens driving white Toyota Camrys. In the left-hand lanes it’s not uncommon for most traffic to be moving at 10 to 15 mph above the posted limit.
If you want to move with the flow of traffic and minimize the risk of getting a ticket, a radar/laser detector is an essential part of your arsenal. Radar/laser detectors come in several subcategories. First are dash-top models in a wide range of prices, from under $100 to over $500. These are offered in the lower-priced range from brands like Cobra and Whistler, with higher-priced models from Beltronics, Escort and Valentine One, often marketed direct to consumers from ads in magazines like this one as well as via their own websites.
The next category of countermeasures that appeals mainly to owners of expensive and exotic cars are permanently installed units, often called remote radar/laser detectors. These units not only are concealed from view—important if you happen to get pulled over—but some offer the ability to render you virtually invisible to laser guns. Call it stealth technology for speeders.
Then there are a number of hybrid units, units that combine GPS navigation functionality with radar/laser/red-light camera detection capabilities, like the highly advertised Escort Passport iQ unit. Then there’s standalone laser jammers, units that are legal in most states. And then there is the new breed of detection, smartphones equipped with real-time updated databases that can warn you of fixed threats, like speed cameras and red-light cameras (see sidebar on page 62).
Over the years, european car has partnered with Carl Fors of Speed Measurement Laboratories (SML) to bring readers the most comprehensive and unbiased evaluations of radar/laser detectors available anywhere, with our last review being published in 2008. In the four years since, much of the status quo has remained intact but in many ways the law enforcement landscape has changed. When asked about the current state of the art, here’s what Fors had to say.
“You’re lucky you drive a European car but lucky you don’t live there, as radar detectors are illegal in most western European jurisdictions. In the United States, radar detectors in cars are legal in all states with the exception of Virginia and Washington, D.C. In Canada, radar detectors are legal only in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Elsewhere in Canada your detector will be confiscated and a hefty fine will be assessed.
“Beyond protecting your driving record, the radar detector you choose must detect radar! There are lots of frills in present and past offerings, but it still comes down to giving you adequate warning in time to get slowed down.
“Today, the increasing threat comes from police laser guns. There are more of them and they are getting better. Laser can pinpoint one vehicle in a group of rush hour traffic, radar can’t. The way laser is deployed is what you need to be aware of as most laser is used within a range of 1,000 feet or less and the laser beam is quite small. At 1,000 feet, the laser’s beam is down to a mere 30 inches wide—not much bigger than your front license plate—compared to a K band radar beam of some 210 feet! Laser is light and doesn’t scatter like the microwave radiation of a radar gun. Don’t expect much advanced warning to laser.
“The newest laser guns have GPS and take your picture with a pull of the trigger, clear evidence of speeding. The picture has your speed, date, place and distance in a third of a second. Such evidence is pretty much impossible to beat in court.
“Thinking about a radar jammer? Don’t! It’s a federal felony to own and operate a radar jammer in all states as the Federal Communications Commission takes a dim view of unlicensed radio transmitters of any type. Conversely, laser jammers, called scramblers by some manufacturers are currently legal as the federal Food and Drug Administration controls laser devices, hasn’t seen fit to regulate laser jammers or scramblers.”
Make sure you check with individual state laws before investing in a laser jammer as states do control them.