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Q: Maybe you can settle an argument my brother and I had on Thanksgiving: He kept saying radar detectors work great, and I kept countering “no way.” Backstory is, I saw this local newscast saying that nowadays the police track speeders with laser beams, which the detectors can’t, uh, detect. I’m a genius and my brother’s a cretin, right?
Boys, boys, stop scrapping and remember that the truth’s usually somewhere in the middle. Yes, the proliferation of laser guns, or “LIDAR,” has outmoded lots of radar detectors, to the chagrin of many an American leadfoot. But tons of anti-laser boxes have hit the market, many of which promise to jam the newfangled guns.
The National Motorists Association estimates that 20 million American drivers tool around with detectors of all stripes; each year, another million anti-Man boxes fly off store shelves. Cops always claim that once your detector beeps, you’re already toast, while users continue to swear by their fuzzbusters. The answer depends on how much you’re willing to shell out, as well as the craftiness of the police.
Most radar guns operate on one of three different frequencies: the X-band, the K-band, and the Ka-band. The X is the easiest to detect, and even the cheapest boxes can suss it out from a few miles away. The K-band’s a bit tougher, while Ka-band guns are the sneakiest—their beams remain invisible to most detectors until the last second. So unless you’ve got one of the newer, pricier detectors, specifically designed to pick up Ka-band signals, you might as well invest the $100 to $200 in Powerball tickets.
As you note, LIDAR was the biggest advance in speed enforcement in the ’90s. Such guns still aren’t ubiquitous, as the prices can be prohibitive, but they’re tough to beat. The detector industry promises its laser detectors and laser “jammers” will save you, with the latter gizmos promising to actually make your car more or less invisible to LIDAR. Do these anti-laser boxes work? A few do, but lots don’t deliver on their lofty promises. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for example, recently put Rocky Mountain Radar’s popular Phazer II Laser Scrambler through its paces, and the device failed miserably. (Rocky Mountain Radar countered that the tests didn’t accurately mimic real highway conditions, and it’s worth pointing out that the IIHS is funded by auto insurers, who detest anti-cop gadgets.) Check out the reports at speedzones.com and radartest.com to get the full scoop.
No matter how fancy a detector you purchase—and the top-flight laser jammers run upwards of $1,400—there’s never a guarantee you won’t get nabbed for speeding. Inclement weather, cell phones, or even garage-door openers can interfere with a detector’s proper operation. And there’s no device Mr. Roboto can imagine that’ll save you if you don’t notice that a police cruiser’s been tailing you for two miles. No matter how much cake you drop on a detector, it won’t add any points to your IQ.
The other big question most folks have is whether they’ll run afoul of the law by using a detector. Unless you’re driving through Virginia or the District of Columbia, or you’re piloting an 18-wheeler or a sizable bus, detectors are copacetic. New York State law, for example, explicitly bans gizmos “capable of receiving signals on the frequencies allocated for police use.” That means no police scanners, unless you’ve got a special permit. But in the 1970s, the courts ruled that radar detectors aren’t covered by the law, since they don’t decode police signals into intelligible words. The state did later add a prohibition on commercial vehicles weighing over 18,000 pounds. Unless you’re a trucker, don’t sweat it.
Per federal law, detectors are also verboten on commercial vehicles involved in interstate commerce. And the Federal Communications Commission frowns on radar jammers, designed to muck up the operation of police equipment. (Laser jammers remain legal in most states, and the FCC doesn’t seem to have authority over anti-LIDAR boxes because the technology doesn’t use the airwaves.) Even though the boxes are tolerated just about everywhere, the smart money says if you do get pulled over, the cop won’t be too psyched about seeing one on your dash. Good luck talking your way out of that ticket.