A Rant Against Radar Detectors

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 08, 2019

I opened a drawer in my desk and there it was—a radar detector in basic black. I was sent the darned thing 20 years ago, used it for a day or so, hated the squawking and blinking lights, and filed it away, never to think of it again.

In some states, hanging detectors from the rear-view mirror is illegal. Better to use that spot for your classic fuzzy dice.

Radar detectors annoy me. Maybe it’s the smug expression on the face of the guy in the ad, as he explains how his unit will see operating radar ahead of you, behind you, and to the side of you—all so you can speed with impunity while the device is silent.

Those radar guns are old school. Now there's lidar to worry about.

It’s a Pavlovian response—see a police cruiser and hit the brakes. It must amuse the staties no end. By the time you’re slowing down, they’ve already nailed you. Meanwhile, the guy with the box that detects X band, K band and Ka band is sailing past, smiling broadly, having been alerted several miles back. Avoiding one ticket justifies the expense of the device, typically $400.

But do radar detectors even work these days? Autotrader says no:

Virtually every modern vehicle on the road is equipped with blind spot monitoring, parking sensors, adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, and all of those systems seem to use some form of technology that makes a radar detector go crazy with flashing and chirping….The number of false positives has gone from "annoying but acceptable" to "please shut up so I can listen to my music." If eight out of every nine radar detector chirps and flashes are fake, you start to simply not trust it. And then, what's the point?

That's well said, but in fairness, here's a point-by-point rebuttal to the Autotrader article from The Drive. But there are other reasons why radar detectors are challenged these days. A growing number of police outfits now have lidar, which uses a fixed beam of infrared light to catch you speeding, and is much harder to detect. You can also avoid the considerable expense of the stupid things by installing—free—the Waze app, which uses crowd sourcing to give you directions—and also warn you of objects in the road, stalled cars and…police activity.

Watch out, or the 1954 Ford Ranch Wagon will get ya.

So radar detectors are probably an anachronism, but that doesn’t stop people from buying them. The global radar detector market is expected to grow at an annual rate of 6.8 percent between 2018 and 2025, reports Research Nester. Not surprisingly, North America, where the libertarian impulse is strong, dominates the market.

Slow down, and not just in radar zones.

Let’s do the numbers. There are 100,000 microwave-transmitting, speed-detecting radar guns in use in the U.S., and 20,000 new ones sold to law enforcement annually. There are also 25,000 more-sophisticated lidar units, which Car and Driver describes as a “serious threat” to its speed-happy readers. To defeat lidar, you’ll need a unit with laser-jamming technology, and that’s illegal in a lot of places. Radar detectors—the whole category—are mostly legal to use, but not in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Many other states put restrictions on radar detectors, such as prohibiting the in commercial vehicles (New York, Connecticut and Texas, for instance) or banning their being hung off a rear-view mirror (California).

The whole thing is an expensive cat-and-mouse game. Here’s a map breaking down the different types and frequencies in use by law enforcement. If you want to be fully protected in many of those places, a mere $400 detector won’t do. No, you’ll need something like the $3,499 Escort Max 360 CI, which Motor1 says is one of the best units out there. You got that right, $3,500.

Fooey. Just slow down. You'll save both lives and a lot of gas money. I get the issue, though. The cutting-edge in performance cars today is speeds over 200 mph and zero to 60 times of less than two seconds. So in about the time of an eye blink you can be exceeding the legal 55 mph limit in most of my home state. Few of us are lucky enough to live in Montana, which has 80-mph limits.

So if you spent money for performance, well sir, you want to use it! But radar detectors don’t provide safe haven anymore. You’re probably gonna get nailed anyway, and that will be after all those annoying beeps prevent you from enjoying the 16-speaker Bose stereo you also paid for.

I’m no Sammy Hagar. I can drive 55, and do. It’s been 30 years since I got a speeding ticket. And the radar detector is still in that drawer.

Here's some video from when radar was invincible, circa 1958:

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One