Sunday, January 28, 2007

Radar Detector on a Test Drive

I finally did it. After a year of driving, and hearing of the nightmares my colleagues go through with speeding tickets, I went and bought a radar detector.

(note: today, I'm just expressing my experiences with my new unit; the post where I ponder the philosophical question of whether I SHOULD have one is mostly written and coming soon. In the meantime, take it for granted that I have accepted the necessity of it, and move along.)

I purchased a brand new Beltronixs RX-65 Professional Series. Before you gasp at the MSRP, keep in mind these things are generally marked up signficantly from invoice. You can generally get these, much like I did, for about $200 as long as you're willing to forego the factory warranty (most resellers that go this route provide their own warranty in its place) since Beltronics refuses to allow its official retailers to sell on eBay or below MSRP. I got mine from i-Net Distributors, an eBay retailer with over 10k feedback (99.6% positive currently). Their process was heavily automated - I never dealt with a human in the entire transaction. Which is a good thing because the automated process got me the thing faster than any human. It was well packed, and new (sans shrinkwrap, since they take the serial).

I chose this particular model at the suggestion of Snowstorm, perhaps the only guy I know who could get more excited about awesome new toys than I could. But as a further justification, check out Speed Zones, which pits the various detectors against each other. This one does quite favourably in most tests - detecting all the radar modes at long range, and even getting the occasional laser detection right.

Simple stats. This guy does X band (not used much anymore, mostly in gas stations and stuff), most of the modern K-bands, front and rear laser detection(1), and safety radar, all with only minimal leakage for detection by radar detector detectors(2). It has voice alerts, and a decent amount of configurability. It's a sleek windshield-mount unit, with a mute button on the cigarette lighter power source.

(1 Laser is very precise, and generally instant-on. This means even the best laser detectors, if you're lucky and the cop doesn't aim well, will generally only give you a warning after you've already been clocked. However, laser is more difficult to use, and doesn't work in all environments - in particular, you can't use it from a moving cop car! There are laser jammers on the market, and they are generally legal since the FCC doesn't have jurisdiction over the near-visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum IIRC, but the units are generally stand-alone and require mounting on the front of your car.)

(2 Most radar detectors (RD) can be detected by a radar detector detector (RDD). This matters a lot for truckers, who generally are not allowed RDs, and in the (very few) locations in the US where RDs are illegal. Practically all detectors can be detected, though generally at varying ranges. One notable exception is the Beltronics STi Driver, which has practically no measurable emissions even at mere centimeters away! Of course, since radar detectors are legal in B.C., Alberta, Washington, Oregon, and California, I have little to worry about!)

Well, moving right along.... I gave this bad boy a try, with a few days of city driving, followed by a camping trip up in Squamish - a 200 mile marathon each way. Despite having my new toy, the trip was made entirely at safe and (well.... almost) legal speeds. Sadly, even with the detector, the trip took me four hours, despite my previous musings, which would have led me to estimate it at three.

I can't say I'm unhappy with the unit. It dims well, its controls are intuitive, it has voice alerts, and the auto-mute makes longer warnings very pleasant. But, in the end, I was actually quite disappointed with the whole "radar detector experience", in a way that probably had very little to do with the Beltronics itself. I will iterate my reasons in a second.

The Beltronics definitely had some good reliable detections. In town at 156th and Bel-Red, you can pick up a consistent X-band signal from the gas station (this is quite common), as well as what I call an "echo" (single bar of K band) of a far away speed-detecting sign. On highway 99, we didn't detect the speed signs that far off... but I got K-band echoes even on the other side of a massive cliff face! That made me very happy. But by far the best true positive I got, was passing a pulled-over cop. Sensed echoes two blocks away while his radar gun was pointing sideways while he was ticketing someone, with a massive K-band signal as I passed his car.

I got a few cases that worried me though. Passing an RCMP officer obviously monitoring traffic, not so much as a blip, and he was definitely holding a radar gun - though it's possible he was using an instant-on mode (POP mode) and just ignoring our heavy wave of traffic. I saw another cop car in a speed-trappy position, but nothing. Still, I didn't see either move at all, I can hope those were true negatives.

I have not seen any laser, safety radar, Ka or Ku yet. I suppose this is a good thing, though I'd like to see detections for those at least once to see them in action.

I got a couple false positives even on the highway from particularly powerful store transmitters. And a few mystery signals - K-band echoes that lasted huge distances. I suspect that I was following an undercover cop who was radaring from his car, but never got close enough to take the full force. In the city, there's tons of X band and a fair bit of even K band. The "modes" of the detector didn't make much difference with the 'City' mode only lowering the voice warning trigger level for X band a bit. I have no idea what 'Highway' actually does, but I'm generally going to leave it on 'AutoScan'.

But, in the end, I wasn't happy with the radar detector experience in general. And here's why:

You simply don't get to use it enough. For a variety of reasons, you simply don't have a need for a detector.
  • Stupid Washington drivers who don't know what "State Law: Keep right except to pass" signs mean.
  • Stupid B.C. drivers who think reaching speed limit is something to aspire to one day.
  • Stupid Everett, which is always bloody backed up and sloww.
  • In-town - really, if you have to stop every two blocks, why would you want to build up enough speed for it to matter?
  • Highway 99; there are sections of that highway where I'm quite comfortable driving at the speed limit, thank you!
  • Traffic - you move with the traffic at their speed. Not much to be done about it.

False positives. As any security guy knows, avoiding false positives are critical. In town, they're everywhere. The highway isn't bad, but even then you'd get the occasional warning that's obviously wrong. The reason is simple - even if your false positive rate is very low (say 1%), by the sheer fact that most of the time you're not getting radared, that means that even the 1 in 100 signals false positive are still going to show up more frequently than the actual getting radared by a cop. This is described well in a intrustion detection paper I read once long ago.

The more false positives I get, the less the detections will worry me. Which you can obviously see will lead down a path that is going to result in me being unhappy. Even putting that aside, the alerts are annoying - you generally only want one when there is a genuine need, and that certainly didn't feel like the case for me.

Human perceptions. People react differently when they see you have a radar detector. They must wonder if you're a compulsive speed freak, or fighting the system, or simply trying to scam your way out of obeying the rules. Well I have no idea if people think that, but I still find myself putting it away around officials (ie. border guards), even though it's perfectly legal to have. There is also a genuine and broadly-held belief that if you have a radar detector, cops are going to be disinclined to let you off with a warning (not that cops here do that much from what I hear).

Fellow speed-freaks without detectors. You get a detection, you're going too fast.... you slow down! That is essentially the point of these things. Of course, how do you communicate that to those around you, who are irritated by your change in speed of travel? Even worse, what if it's a false positive or one of the many "quasi-positives" (heh, yes I made that up) like radar speed signs? You then look the fool for going slowly.


So, will I keep my radar detector? Probably. I have it, and I suspect one day I'll be glad I got it. Plus, like any toy, it's better to have it then not have it when you need it. But I'm still considering whether to use it on a day-to-day basis, or just save it for those extra-long highway drives where the last thing I want is to stop and talk to an officer at the side of the road.

1 comment:

Feynman and Coulter's Love Child said...

I love my radar detector...except for the 99% of the time I get false positives. And I get a lot.

Cell phone towers, hotel electronic eyes, the local CBC station, everything. Mostly X-band, and I'm very upset that I can't just disable it, since X-bands are never actual radar, just false positives. Hell, I even got a false positive on a laser signal in a Wal-Mart parking lot, which makes very little sense.

The biggest threat, however, is that the City of Edmonton has this obsession with photo radar vans (and coming soon, photo radar at intersections). Radar detectors are helpless against this threat, since the radar is only looking forward. Unless I get a lucky bounce off of a vehicle ahead of me, the only signal I get on the detector comes as I pass the van... which means its already too late. A real shame, really.

By far the best part is passing a police cruiser, looking at the (85% likely) corrupt officer driving it, pointing at the radar detector, and sneering. But that's just me.