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.

Evaluation Criteria

To evaluate their effectiveness, Fors’ Speed Measurement Labs test radar/laser detectors in the following categories:

  • Radar Reception
  • Laser Reception
  • Laser Countermeasures
  • Long Range Testing
  • Radar Detector Detector Testing
  • POP Testing
  • Red Light Camera Locations
  • SWS, Safety Alert, Strobe Alert
  • Over The Hill Testing

In the past we have assigned numerical values that compare the detectors to each other in each category but have deviated from that for this year’s evaluation. As X band guns continue to fall out of favor, we’ve eliminated that as a major criteria. (Honolulu, Hawaii, has no radar guns—only laser, K and Ka band deployment is almost universal but laser is gaining favor as it allows officers to target a specific vehicle and with integrated cameras, makes the citation almost impossible to contest.)

Speaking of police officers, what makes the SML annual test in El Paso, Texas, each summer the gold standard in radar detector tests is that almost every manufacturer participates and that all the speed measurement devices are manned by law enforcement personnel. These officers are properly trained and certified for each of the radar and laser guns used in the test, and deploy the radar and laser guns as they do every day. SML acts as an observer and sanctions the test. This ensures that the results are fair, impartial and unbiased. SML does not sell the products it tests.

After a battery of tests held over a three-day period, here’s a recap of the results covering a wide variety of units. The prices listed are the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. You may be able to find them at a lower price in retail stores or from authorized resellers on the Internet.

(For a full review of the extensive testing process, visit the SML website at speedzones.com.)

Whistler XTR-690SE - $230

Radar/Laser Detector

Pros:

  • Very good balance between sensitivity and selectivity
  • Offers the best overall performance in an under $200 detector
  • Cons:

  • Not to be compared to detectors costing two to four times its modest cost
  • Whistler
    800.531.0004
    whistlergroup.com

    Cobra XRS 9970 G - $390

    Radar/Laser/Safety Camera Detector

    Pros:

  • Good balance between performance and cost
  • Touch screen is an innovative feature
  • Cons:

  • Slightly less sensitive compared to higher-priced units
  • Take it or leave it styling
  • Cobra
    773.889.3087
    cobra.com

    Escort Passport Solo S3 - $350

    Radar/Laser Detector

    Pros:

  • Battery operated, cordless design
  • Easy to mount high, improving sensitivity
  • Cons:

  • Less overall sensitivity compared to the top-tier units
  • Keep a spare battery in the glove compartment
  • Escort
    800.964.3138
    escortradar.com

    Beltronics STI Magnum - $500

    Radar/Laser Detector

    Pros:

  • Virtually invisible to all (RDDs)
  • Compatibility with Escort Live (optional)
  • Available integrated laser jammer (optional)
  • Cons:

  • Slightly less sensitive compared to Valentine One, especially to the rear
  • Beltronics
    866.468.0322
    beltronics.com

    $500

    Escort Passport 9500ix - $500

    Radar/Laser Detector

    Pros:

  • Built-in GPS capability, access to threat database
  • Programmable features include compatibility with Escort Live (optional)
  • Available integrated laser jammer (optional)
  • Cons:

  • Slightly less radar sensitivity to the rear compared to Valentine One
  • Escort
    800.964.3138
    escortradar.com

    $500

    Valentine One - $500

    Radar/Laser Detector

    Pros:

  • Extreme sensitivity mated with exceptional selectivity, filtering false signals
  • Front and rear detection capabilities
  • Directional arrows locate the threat
  • Best laser sensitivity

    Cons:

  • Larger size relative to other top-tier units
  • No integrated laser jamming capability
  • Valentine One
    800.331.3030
    valentine1.com

    Escort Passport iQ - $650

    Radar/Laser Detector with integrated GPS Navigation

    Pros:

  • Integrates radar/laser detection with GPS navigation
  • Good sensitivity, falling just short of top-performing units
  • Visual indication of red light camera threats
  • Cons:

  • No integrated real-time traffic updates unlike OEM units
  • Escort
    800.964.3138
    escortradar.com

    Beltronics STiR Plus$1,300

    Remote Radar/Laser Detector

    Pros:

  • Good overall levels of sensitivity
  • Integrated laser jamming capability
  • All components are concealed, the Stealth fighter of radar/laser detectors
  • Can’t be seen or stolen

    Cons:

  • Installation generally requires professional installation, higher overall cost
  • Sensitivity lower by 5 percent because of lower antenna position, generally falls short of the best dash-top detectors
  • Beltronics
    866.468.0322
    beltronics.com

    Blinder M27 X-Treme - $500

    Laser Jammer

    Pros:

  • Simply the best defense against laser guns
  • Upgradable as new laser guns are introduced
  • Provides parking assist as a bonus
  • Cons:

  • Cost is over and above a radar/laser detector
  • Installation generally requires professional installation
  • Blinder
    866.622.7219
    blinderxtreme.com

    Escort Live

    Escort Live, introduced with great fanfare at the 2011 SEMA Show is an exciting development in the escalating war between law enforcement and those drivers wishing to reach their destination sooner, and reducing the chance of receiving a costly citation.

    While there has been a pullback in the deployment in fixed speed cameras, Carl Fors believes that they will be less of a factor in the coming years but they will still remain a threat. Using a specially designed cigarette lighter plug (a hard-wire version is promised in 2012) your Bluetooth-equipped iPhone or Android smartphone can be used to augment the alerts provided by many Beltronics and Escort high-end radar/laser detectors. Constantly updated threats are delivered to your phone in real time.

    As of press time, the rate to access this feature is around $80, but is expected to rise as more units reach end users. The system depends on other Escort Live users to report encountered threats to the central database. Billed as social networking for drivers, Escort Live promises to be another important tool in the constant battle between police enforcement and drivers who want to avoid costly citations.

    For more information and instructional videos, visit escortradar.com/escort-live/.

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    By D.h. Lecter
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