A radar detector is only a tool. If you don't know how to use it, don't expect much protection.
Congratulations, you've bought a radar detector and are about to use it for the first time. Now don't make the mistake of just slapping it onto the dash and driving off. Unless you're able to interpret the information it's trying to deliver, even the best radar detector won't be much help. Here are our top 9 secrets to getting maximum protection from a radar detector.
Secret #1: Mount it properly
First rule: Mount the radar detector where it has a clear view of the road ahead and where you can see it without staring off into space. At 75 mph a car is covering 110 feet per second; ask yourself how much time you can devote to staring at a radar detector.
For the best performance, conventional wisdom says to place the detector as high on the windshield as possible. This may sound like a good idea since radio and TV stations rely on tall towers to broadcast their signals afar. But police radar operates quite differently.
It's not omni-directional, for example, transmitting in a circle. Radar beamwidth by design is very narrow, typically 9 to 14 degrees. Fortunately, this microwave energy bounces off anything metallic in its path, aiding detection. In our years of testing detectors we've never seen range increase when relocating one from a passenger vehicle's dash to the upper-windshield area.
There's another drawback to mounting a detector up high: it impairs laser detection. Keep in mind that a laser beam at 1,000 feet can be covered by a three-foot-diameter circle. The beam is so tiny that when aimed at a front license plate, the favored target, many dash-mounted detectors can't see it. Move it higher still and the extra distance hampers even the best detectors. (The only defense is a laser jammer.)
Viewed through the HUD of a Stalker X-LR speed laser, the red aiming reticle approximates laser beam width at 1,000 feet. At shorter range, the pinpoint of 904-nanometer-frequency light may not reach a high-mounted detector.
Splitting the difference with a mid-windshield location entails some compromises as well. You're advertising the fact that you're packing a radar detector, for one. And many cops don't like them. "To me, they're the moral equivalent of burglar's tools," veteran Beachwood, Ohio Police Department traffic officer Bill Balcom once told us during a ride-along, reflecting the view of many officers.
Remember: The laser's pinpoint beam width means it can target a vehicle's front license plate without reaching a detector high on the windshield. Net result: no warning. And put it where you can reach the controls, particularly the operating mode and audio mute. On models lacking auto mute--rare today on all but the most basic units--you'll need ready access to the mute button to shut off the audio alerts during extended radar encounters.
Secret #2: Protect your investment
Leaving a detector in your car in a darkened parking lot is no different than leaving a $50 bill in plain sight. It's asking for trouble. When you're leaving the vehicle unattended, particularly overnight, always hide the detector and its cord and bracket, both of them dead giveaways to a detector's presence. Rub off any suction-cup marks on the windshield; they also advertise the presence of a radar detector.
In summertime, another good reason to remove the detector during daylight hours is to shield it from sunlight. The windshield acts like a magnifying glass and we routinely find polycarbonate-case radar detectors reaching 150 degrees F within 90 minutes. Some metal-cased radar detectors can reach that in 40 minutes.
Secret #3: Learn how to interpret its alerts
Weak K- or Ka-band radar alerts that quickly disappear may seem to be false alarms. But they could be something else. The radar may be pointed away from your direction of travel, for instance, or angled across the roadway ahead, reducing warning range. Hilly terrain can intermittently block the signal as well.
When used in instant-on mode, the officer hits a button and a target speed appears almost instantly.
The detector could be alerting to a trooper working traffic ahead with radar. He'll have the radar shut off, on standby. When an interesting target approaches, he'll fire and get a speed nearly instantly. Then he'll turn it off again to keep from advertising his presence to detector-equipped drivers.
If traffic is thin, the radar will often stay silent until the officer takes a shot at another vehicle. Ignore the danger signs and his next customer may well be you.
Secret #4: Don't expect more than a detector can deliver
A radar detector merely confirms the presence of radar and lasers. If you can't be bothered to stay abreast of what's going on, you're asking more of a detector than it can handle. New owners of radar detectors, once they've outwitted a few radar ambushes, tend to develop a sense of overconfidence.
From a Colorado State Patrol Cessna 182 we clocked this VW Corrado on I-25 at 89 mph in a 75 zone. The driver made two mistakes: He failed to spot the big VASCAR pavement stripes and he forgot to look up.
Several years ago we produced a series of trade films of new speed-enforcement products. This entailed using a variety of police vehicles, along with a state patrol aircraft, radar and lasers.
One director on the project was so intrigued by radar detectors that he bought one after shooting wrapped. During our weeks ahead in the editing suite, he'd arrive each morning bragging about how he'd shaved another few minutes off his 120-mile roundtrip freeway commute.
Eventually the inevitable happened and he was popped for speeding. His comeuppance came from a highway patrol Cessna 172 equipped with nothing more exotic than a stopwatch. His detector naturally remained silent. Moral: Don't take a knife to a gunfight.
For those who don't mind the extra work, there is a way to counter this threat. A VHF/UHF radio scanner allows one to eavesdrop on speed-enforcement aircraft. It's useless much of the time, but can be priceless on these occasions. It also can warn of enforcement dragnets where one officer handles the hardware--usually a radar gun or lidar, sometimes a time/distance computer--and radios other units to make the traffic stops.
Our hapless colleague could have been saved by a scanner. For that matter, he might simply have noticed the large white VASCAR marks painted across the road and looked up for the circling aircraft. But he'd been cruising along fat, dumb and happy, right into the arms of the Colorado State Patrol.
Secret #5: Use City Mode in Town
Driving in town with a detector left in maximum-sensitivity Highway mode will dramatically increase false alarms. City mode (or the Auto Sensitivity mode found in Escort and BEL models) is recommended instead.
City mode reduces sensitivity, usually only on X band, the primary polluting frequency. Some manufacturers offer City X+K, reducing sensitivity on both bands. Others leave sensitivity unchanged and merely raise the threshold at which audio alerts begin. Regardless, it's the driver's responsibility to select the appropriate operating mode.
The most sophisticated way of controlling false alarms is found on Escort models using GPS and Speed-Variable Sensitivity. These automatically dial back sensitivity at low speeds when long range isn't needed, making them the best at eliminating false alarms. We've found them to be up to 30 times quieter than conventional-tech models. More important, they come with a database of red light and speed camera locations, warning whenever one is approached.
Secret #6: Don't wait to react
This one's important, so listen up. Here's why. Once while checking the top speed of a VW GTi test car on a desolate New Mexico road, we popped over a hill and met a short line of vehicles. As our detector nearly jumped off the dash, we spotted a highway patrol car at the rear of the procession. Even knowing that the game should already have been over, by habit we spiked the brakes anyway.
The officer should have won this contest. But in his excitement he triggered the rear radar antenna, rather than the front one that faced us. Brakes smoking, we were under the limit before he could take another shot. Moral: don't wait to react.
Secret #7: Use Highway Mode When Possible
On the open road, we'd suggest using Highway mode for two reasons. One, for maximum radar-detection range. Two, to restore the audible alerts for low-signal-strength encounters. Left accidentally in City mode, the range of many detectors will be so limited they won't warn of radar working traffic far down the road ahead.
In areas where photo radar is used, those driving with a GPS-enabled Escort or BEL radar detector should remember that Auto mode cuts range. Photo radar is extremely tough to detect--even tougher in Auto mode. Blunder into the beam of a Redflex or ATS photo radar van and the detector needs every Decibel of sensitivity to detect the feeble signal.
Our advice: once the BEL or Escort has locked out the local false alarm sources, leave it in Highway mode to better counter photo radar. These detectors are supernaturally quiet, making a few extra false alarms a worthwhile tradeoff.
Secret #8: Adjust your speed instantly
When you get a strong signal-strength alert, it means the radar is close by, possibly already clocking you. Even when braking seems a waste of time, give it your best shot. There are occasions when, for some reason, radar simply declines to do its job. Press the Transmit button at point-blank range and inexplicably, no target speed appears. For whatever reason--electrical gremlins, maybe bad kharma--radar doesn't always do what it's told. So even when it seems a waste of time, adjust your speed promptly. You might get lucky.
One caveat here: Always be aware of traffic behind you before initiating panic braking. If some clown is tailgating you, stomping on the brakes could well have him center-punching your back bumper.
Secret #9: Stay Alert
It sounds like common sense but face it, there are different levels of alertness. The typical driver devotes perhaps 10 percent of their attention to driving and looks no more than 50 feet ahead. A detector will sometimes tip the scales in their favor, but those who stray much beyond 10-12 mph over the limit will eventually get nailed.
Our advice to them: Just slow down, it's a lot cheaper.