Radar Love

The changing status of the radar detector in a hyper-surveilled world


In the fall and winter of 1961, in the back pages of Popular Science, Ebony, The Rotarian, and other magazines, a new product began to appear in small display advertisements. "Warning!" its headline advised. "Radar Speed Trap ahead." The photo showed a tiny device, sheathed in a "smart leatherette case," sitting on the dash of a car with a disembodied hand twisting its dial. It was called Radar Gard, retailing for $39.95, and while the device was clearly designed to elude law enforcement officials using radar guns to fine speeders, the ad copy also emphasized its status as a safety device. "Warns you to slow down if you're traveling too fast. Helps prevent accidents by making you more speed-conscious."

No doubt such claims didn't pass the smell test for those who prefer zero-tolerance speed limits to technological workarounds. Fifty years later, that dynamic remains in place. "There's no legitimate defense for" radar detectors, an Orlando Sentinel editorial insisted in January 2011. "Radar detectors serve one purpose: To warn speeders about cops ahead so they can slow down and avoid a ticket. And then resume speeding."

If the millions of drivers who currently equip their vehicles with radar detectors were still using Radar Gards, that argument might seem more persuasive. But today's radar detectors don't just start sounding alarms when they sense a police officer hiding behind a nearby billboard. Top-of-the-line models like Escort Radar's Passport iQ keep track of current speed limits and offer consistent feedback about your speed in relation to it. They feature built-in GPS and databases that include the locations of thousands of red-light cameras, speed cameras, and speed traps. At a time when domestic law enforcement agencies are using bird-sized drones to monitor U.S. citizens, when Transportation Security Administration personnel may know more than your physician does about the contours of your kidneys, such features give individuals a rare chance to turn the tables on the government, to unite with their fellow citizens and practice crowd-sourced anti-surveillance. And they arguably do make driving safer—at least if you believe it's a good idea to have more information about the changing variables of the roads you're navigating.

A website called The Radar Detection Museum teaches us that police have been deploying technology to catch speeders for more than a century. In 1902, for example, police in Westchester County, New York, hid in three fake tree trunks spaced out one mile apart. Each officer was equipped with a stopwatch and a telephone, and by virtue of this high-tech network they were able to determine how long a driver took to go from trunk to trunk, and thus how fast he was moving.

In the late 1940s, police started using radar to track a driver's speed, and within a decade drivers started developing devices to alert them to where these radar machines were set up. In 1958 The New York Times reported that a young man named Kenneth Bressler was pulled over by police and found to have a large black box in his car with four antennas on it and a loud speaker to sound the alarm when radar was detected. Clearly the gizmo still needed a little work at the time, as Bressler was clocked doing 37 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone

By 1960, Selywn B. Goiter of Mortronic Industries was marketing a product called Radar Gard, which trade publications such as the newsletter of the Michigan Heavy Haulers' Association were beginning to mention. In September 1961, Popular Science featured a three-page spread on a competing product, the Radar Sentry. Apparently that proved to be quite a sales boost. In January 1962, The New York Times reported that Radatron, the company producing the Radar Sentry, had sold 25,000 units of the device in the previous six months. By that time, Chicago, the District of Columbia, and the state of Connecticut had already banned the device, and several other jurisdictions were contemplating bans of their own. 

At that point, traffic fines were not as exorbitant as they are today, and the cost of radar equipment limited the number of police departments that adopted the tactic. Yet the possibility of thwarting such surveillance clearly struck a nerve with the drivers of the early 1960s. Like the first wireless TV remote controls, which had been introduced just a few years earlier, devices like Radar Gard and Radar Sentry were populist responses to heavy-handed technological overreach by powerful institutions. The booming TV industry was trying to use its technological advantage to force viewers to watch commercials as the "price" of its programming. Law enforcement was using its technological advantage to make drivers comply with speed limits to a degree that had previously been impractical to enforce. (There are only so many stretches of road where you can install fake tree trunks with police officers hidden inside.)

Today, that sense of technological overreach is on the increase as states and municipalities aggressively automate their power to impose traffic fines on citizens as a quick and easy way to boost revenue. In 2000 only 25 communities in the U.S. were using red-light cameras; now there are more than 500. Speed cameras are becoming more popular too, often with the express purpose of generating revenue to meet budget shortfalls. In January 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested California could extract nearly $400 million from its drivers if the state started operating cameras. Shortly thereafter New York Gov. David Paterson followed Schwarzenegger's lead with a similar proposal.

In 2009, the city of Randolph, Missouri, population 47, made news for issuing 3,132 traffic fines, most of them speeding tickets. The fines generated an estimated $134,000 to $148,000, or more than half the town's general fund revenue. Chevy Chase Village, Maryland, population 2,072, uses nine speed cameras to issue 150,000 to 180,000 citations a month, collecting $4.7 million in revenue in 2009 and $2.1 million in 2010.

In an environment where automated enforcement systems eliminate the elasticity that has traditionally informed speed limits, and where going just a few miles per hour over a posted limit will net you a $214 ticket 100 percent of the time, feedback devices like the Passport iQ become as integral a part of the driving experience as blinkers or windshield wipers. 

Consider the role they can play at intersections and other locations where automated ticketing cameras are employed. While many studies have shown that red-light cameras at intersections reduce the number of right-angle crashes, they've also shown that rear-end crashes can increase. When drivers spot that tiny camera mounted on the traffic light, instinct immediately kicks in. They want to avoid that ticket—in California, the current fine for running a red light is $436—so they slam on the brakes without warning, often surprising whoever might be trailing them a little bit too closely and thus ending up in a safety-induced collision.

Love them or hate them, red-light cameras add one more variable to the driving landscape, and that variable can often make drivers respond in sudden, hard-to-predict ways. As speeding cameras proliferate, they're likely to have the same effect, with drivers shifting speeds in erratic fashion as they try to maintain compliance with posted speed limits. If you want to know how the people you're sharing the road with might react at the next light, around that bend, and over the next hill, it will pay to have an early warning system alerting you to the presence of nearby red-light cameras, embedded speed sensors, and all the other monitoring devices that governments may adopt as they attempt to balance their budgets through high-speed revenue extraction. In a world of increasingly robust, zero-tolerance surveillance, the radar detector downshifts from a fuzzbusting tool of recklessness to a tool of caution. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.