The Skinny on Radar Detectors

Natalie Josef
September 23, 2010

I first started my driving career in Virginia in the 1990s. Back then, there were tons of highways that had 55 MPH speed limits, which, to me, seemed unnecessarily—and nearly painfully—slow. I had a bit of a lead foot back then and spent much of my time speeding and scouring the medians for unmarked police cars. Or, I would stealthily get behind a speeder and follow in his shadow, praying that he got pulled over before me.

I remember moving out west for the first time, to Arizona, and seeing my first 70 MPH speed limit sign. Hallelujah! Finally, a speed that is reasonable. I pulled over to the side of the road, took a picture of the sign, and kept it as evidence that the West Coast had it going on. I still have the picture.

Of course, now that I am older, I drive like Grandma, but back then, I was always curious about radar detectors. I just assumed they were illegal and not worth looking into. But it’s Thursday, and Thursday is technology day for my blog, so putting aside the questionable morality of speeding for just a moment, let’s take a look at what’s going on in the radar detector world these days.

Are they legal?
Basically, yes. Although there are some restrictions—commercial vehicles and truckers are not permitted to have them and some states have laws against mounting items on the front windshield—they are legal. Guess where they aren’t? Virginia! Who knew I was living in practically the only state where they were not permitted? Radar detectors are also illegal in Washington, DC, and on U.S. military bases.

What’s the newest technology?
The newest radar detectors come equipped with GPS technology. They can store previous locations where police have set up speed traps and sound an alarm when your vehicle is approaching the location. They can also store “false alarm” spots so the detector can ignore them. Some detectors can download the GPS coordinates of speed monitoring and red light cameras and sound an alarm when the driving is approaching one of these cameras.

Do they make the roads more dangerous?
The accepted theory is that people who use radar detectors pose a greater risk of accidents since they are speeding all of the time. However, a 2001 report from Ipsos MORI, a leading marketing research company in the UK, shows that radar detector users posed a 28 percent less risk of accident than other drivers.

Interestingly, people who own radar detectors are involved in more accidents, but they also drive significantly father than other drivers. When distances traveled are taken into consideration, drivers with radar detectors actually have a lower accident rate than drivers without them. In fact, Virginia’s ban on detectors has not made the roads safer in any meaningful way.

Do they prevent speeding tickets?
Going the speed limit is the only way to truly avoid a speeding ticket. But having a radar detector can warn you of an upcoming speed trap and give you enough time to slow down. Of course, most police radars have a “hold” feature, which prevents the beam from leaving the unit until the officer wants to check the speed of a vehicle. The unit can release the beam, obtain the speed, store the speed, and then withhold the beam within a matter of seconds, which is much faster than you can hit the brakes. Most radar detectors can’t work that fast, which means that, by the time your radar detector detects the police, the police have detected you. Plus, unless you want to shell out big bucks every year, keeping up with police technology is nearly impossible.

The bottom line
Like I said before, the only way to prevent a speeding ticket is to actually go the speed limit. For all you lead footers out there, just move out west … or at least out of Virginia.

Natalie Josef

About the Author

Natalie Josef is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

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