World's Greatest... Radio Scanners


By Alexander Roy

When was the last time you saw a trucker pulled over for speeding?

The question never occurred to me until the summer of 2003, as I was preparing for the Gumball Rally, one of the spiritual descendants of the infamous Cannonball Run. I needed to know how truckers cruised at 85 miles-per-hour day after day, without police interference. Truckers, after all, can ill afford to be pulled over and ticketed—the fines are killers, plus their deliveries will be late. And late deliveries are the trucking industry's biggest no-no.

I'd always assumed that truckers tipped each other off about speed traps via CB radio. But their secret weapon is the humble radio scanner.

After the jump: How to pick a scanner...

How does a radio scanner differ from a traditional radio? Whereas a generic radio receives only AM and FM, a radio scanner detects virtually everything else that's broadcast—CB radio, air traffic control instructions, cellphones, and, yes, chatter among cops. Eavesdropping on the police would become a mandatory aspect of my Gumball strategy.

Radio enthusiasts and ham operators have been using scanners since the 1950s, though portable units didn't debut until about two decades later. By the 1980s, a couple hundred bucks scored you a handheld scanner from the likes of Radio Shack, and a generation of geeks grew up eavesdropping on frequencies unheard by the masses.

The spectrum for scanner use runs from innocent fun (listening in on NASCAR pit crews and airplane cockpit chatter) to the lurid (emergency dispatchers) to potentially illegal (police and highway patrol conversations). Laws vary from state to state, but the general rule of thumb is you can listen in as long as you're not using the information to commit a crime.

Three Gumball Rallies, three Bullruns, 18,000 miles, five speeding tickets, and two hours in jail later, I've learned that a scanner's effectiveness is dependent on three things:

  • Transmission Type Any scanner can pick up analog transmissions, but many police and governmental organizations have deployed digital systems over the last decade. Digital decoding is a mandatory (and expensive) option for serious scanning. Analog scanners are available for under $100 through Radio Shack, but digital units, available through specialists, run $450 or more.
  • Antenna Detection range and clarity are largely proportional to antenna size—a single long-whip antenna on a truck is usually for the CB, but a second one is a sure sign of a serious scanner user. If you see a flexible whip antenna on a sports car, get out of the way.
  • Frequency Programming Most scanners are preprogrammed with the most common frequencies (weather, public safety, aircraft), but serious listeners must program additional frequencies manually. The more programmable frequencies, the better. Cross-country racing requires at least 2000 frequencies, which means tedious research.

    So, with all that in mind, what's the world's best scanner? For serious drivers, Uniden is the only choice. Uniden makes two especially admirable models, each with unique pros and cons.

    World's Greatest... Radio ScannersUniden BCT-8 This $200 dashtop unit is probably the single most important consumer electronic device for professional drivers. The BCT-8 is the only scanner with a dedicated "Highway Patrol" feature—a red light and alarm go off any time Highway Patrol units transmit within three miles. Although any scanner can pick up these frequencies, the BCT-8 separates them out by state—essential for avoiding false alarms. While the BCT-8 lacks many features found on high-end scanners (there are less than 250 programmable frequencies, and limited digital decoding), anyone looking to buy a scanner for (ahem) "informational use" while driving need look no further.

    World's Greatest... Radio ScannersUniden BC796D This $550 dashtop unit is the absolute opposite of the BCT-8. The 796D contains 1000 programmable frequencies but lacks the BCT-8's Highway Patrol function. The 796D is for serious users uninterested in preprogrammed police frequencies—users who will spend weeks researching police frequencies online, enter them into an Excel spreadsheet, then download them into their 796D via third-party software, another tedious process essential for cross-country racing. This unit can eavesdrop on virtually anything, but the ergonomics, especially in a moving vehicle, are among the worst of any consumer electronics I've ever used.

    Buying a scanner is easy, but installing one in a location that is both accessible and aesthetically pleasing is virtually impossible. The BCT-8 and BC796D will certainly take up some dashtop real estate, but at least they're removable thanks to our friend Velcro. Mounting either overhead (or anywhere else) will require a screwdriver and the willingness to cut holes in your car or truck interior. The BC796D is now available with a small remote display head, a $300-plus kit that allows scanner placement in the trunk.

    World's Greatest... Radio ScannersAn external antenna is mandatory. Casual users will be satisfied with a window-glass mount aerial for under $30. But truckers (and Cannonballers) know better—the bigger the better. Which means a professional mount attached to the roof, truck or rear bumper, along with a flexible aerial that's 4'-8' long.

    Unfortunately, a dashtop scanner and large antenna are huge red flags if pulled over by police, which is why some drivers opt for a good handheld that can be stowed under the seat. The $600 Uniden BC396T duplicates most of the features of the pricer models, adding 5000 more programmable frequencies. Unfortunately, a smaller antenna means less range, and the small screen is hard to read in a moving car.

    Any of these scanners is but one leg in the triad of professional driving. Next in the World's Greatest series: CB Radios.

    Alexander Roy is an automotive/travel executive and holder of several international racing records which must remain secret. Roy is the only 6-time trophy winner in Extreme Rallysport, winning both the Gumball 3000 and Bullrun in his fake German Polizei BMW M5. Team Polizei has a flawless safety record over 18,000 miles in the US, Europe & Africa. Roy is also producer of "32 Hours, 7 Minutes", a documentary about the world record-setting race from New York to Los Angeles.

    World's Greatest... Radio Scanners