World's Greatest... Radar Detectors

By Alexander Roy

In the last 10 months, I
ve driven almost 6,000 miles on public roads at well over 100 miles-per-hour. That
s almost 30 hours at speeds most wouldn
t attempt for more than a few minutes.

I received only one speeding ticket.

My speed-demon ways are due to my twice-a-year participation in the Gumball 3000 and Bullrun rallies. Spiritual inheritors to the infamous Cannonball Run, each is a 3,000 mile, seven-day road trip across the United States or Europe. There is no harsher test of automotive technology—or of radar detectors.

For years, myself and a handful of drivers you
ve never heard of—Collins, Rawlings, Tunon, Ross—have dominated the Gumball 3000 and Bullrun with relative impunity. Although we
re enemies on the road, we agree on one thing—there is only one radar detector worth buying. The rest are really no better than overpriced brick.

Amazingly, America is one of the only countries in the world where it
s legal to buy a radar detector—a device whose sole purpose it is to aid in committing a crime. Ten percent of drivers are stopped for speeding every year, generating tens of millions of dollars in speeding fines, and yet only six percent of drivers use a radar detector. That
s like being a beat cop without a bulletproof vest, or a fireman without a hose.

If you
re going to make the wise choice and join the six percent, the first lesson worth learning is,
Don
t put your detector on the dash.
The navies and air forces of the world, whose priceless officers, pilots, ships and planes must be protected at all costs, have, through countless battles and casualties, determined that radar signals are best detected over the greatest distance by placing a radar detector at the highest possible point. This is why warships place radar arrays on a high mast, and why AWACS early-warning aircraft operate at 30,000 feet.

A radar detector should be mounted as high on the windshield as possible, preferably flush with the roof of the car. Any other mounting is a waste of time, money and dash space. There is only one exception: many late-model cars
windshields have auto-dimming/heating elements which may block radar signals, a catastrophic drawback for detector mounting. (Luckily, manufacturers like Mercedes often designate a specific location just for detector mounting, and it
s no coincidence that it
s high up, right next to the rearview mirror.)

Now that you know the secret of detector placement, it
s time to start looking for the gadget itself. Most detector manufacturers would have you believe that the following features are worth paying more money for. Let
s take a quick look at each, and why, although there is some convenience or entertainment value herein, none really make for a truly effective radar detector:

Text Display Serious speeding means keeping one
s eyes on the road. Visual alerts must be simple enough to discern via peripheral vision, if not a quick glance. No detector
s display is large enough to read in the split second one may look, at 110-plus mph, before deciding whether to brake or accelerate. Manufacturers like BEL tout the value of a display indicating the precise frequency of incoming radar signals (i.e.
K 24.140
), but the average detector user is unlikely to read the manual, let alone remember what a specific frequency means. If icons are good enough for the Air Force

Voice Alerts Most drivers listen to music in the car, rendering audible alerts meaningless and visual alerts essential. The essential information—that a police radar is nearby—is best communicated by the more concise beep or brap. Again, if it
s good enough for the Air Force

Earphone Jack This should only be used by motorcyclists, and yet I
ve heard salespeople tout this as a selling point. There are too many reasons to list here as for why no driver should be wearing an earphone or headset while speeding.

SWS Safety Radar Reception The SWS (or
Safety Warning System
) is a system of transmitters intended to warn SWS-enabled detectors of accidents and road conditions. This system never saw widespread deployment because the it was propriety technology, and it answered a question only a few detector owners were asking.

All of these bells and whistles don
t help a detector accomplish its primary goal: sensing radar guns. Radar guns are generally used to engage targets at approximately one-fourth of a mile away (1320 feet), and often even closer. If you
re hit at this distance and there are no other cars nearby, you
re toast no matter what detector you
re using. Therefore, a detector must sense police radar as it bounces off other cars as far as away as possible. One of the secrets of successful speeding is to always keep some hapless civilians (preferably other speeders) at least a half a mile in front of and behind you. This greatly improves the likelihood that, if a police radar is deployed nearby, its beam will hit our decoy first, and, like a pebble in a pond, stray radar waves will be picked up by our trusty detector.

Luckily, the top-of-the-line detectors from BEL, Escort and Valentine can all pick up police radar at ranges far greater than the quarter-mile average used by police: 2100+ feet around a curve, and 5+ miles(!) on a straightaway. Even around a curve, the quick-braking speeder has a very good chance of escaping without a ticket.

But it
s not just about sensing radar—it
s also about eliminating false alarms. False alarms mean lifting one
s foot off the gas, if not actual braking—big no-no
s for the serious speeder.

But false alarms are only half the problem—real alerts are the other half. The police may be a mile ahead, or down a side road, or approaching from the rear. The greater a detector
s range, the more likely it will pick up any and all signals, real or false, without telling us where they
re coming from.

So, let
s flog the military analogy one last time, because in-car radar detectors are meant to perform precisely the same job as those installed in fighter aircraft. There is one feature included in all modern fighter aircraft, a feature lacking in virtually every in-car radar detector available because one manufacturer owns the patent, a feature without which a fighter
s radar warning system would be considered ineffective: incoming threat directional signal indicators.

In fighter combat, this feature is the difference between life and death. In a car, this feature is the difference between slamming on the brakes or flooring the gas. Real or false, a weak signal from the rear can (usually) be ignored, but a radar signal from the front is a critical threat. Of secondary but major importance is the police car hiding on the side of the road. Only directional signal indicators can tell you when you
ve passed a well-camouflaged police car, allowing you to floor it once passing beyond line of sight.

World's Greatest... Radar Detectors

The only detector to offer these kinds of indicators? The Valentine V1 ($399). It
s the Ipod of Radar Detectors—it does everything you want without any extraneous features. The only windshield mountable detector with directional indicators, it also includes best-in-class laser detection and hardware upgradeability going back to its initial release in 1990. Valentine owns the patent on directional indicators, which is why no one else offers it in a windshield mountable unit. Every single top Gumball and Bullrun driver uses the Valentine V1.

BEL
s RX65 Pro ($329) and Escort
s Passport 8500 X50 ($349) can match or slightly surpass the V1 in detection range and false alarm reduction, but without the directional display. Detector shoppers may buy these without shame, but you will be braking every time you get a real alarm, even if it
s behind you, because you
ll never really know where it
s coming from. V1 owners will be accelerating away.

Don
t want to go the detector route? Well, you can still consider saving your money and staying within 10% of posted speed limits. But do the math—you
re just not going to save that much time unless you become a professional speeder. And you don
t become a professional speeder by buying a second-rate radar detector, or even by buying a V1. What you will need is common sense—whether driving 45 or 75.

The author is not a paid consultant for any other radar detector manufacturer. The author does not condone speeding, and regrets the terrible state of American driver education. The author has never had an accident while using a radar detector.

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.