…and what is important in a radar detector?
This is a question that we’re asked almost every single day. The real answer of course is: it all depends. There are many factors that affect this decision based on you as a driver. While we would like to have everyone own a radar detector, since that’s what we manufacture, that’s not really a correct answer.
If you’re the kind of driver that is never in a hurry, is never late to go anywhere, absolutely observes all the posted speed limits and never gets impatient with other drivers, then you probably do not need a radar detector. The odds of you getting caught exceeding the speed limit are very remote. Your biggest risk will be a mistaken ticket written by a police officer. While we like to think that the officers do not make these kind of mistakes, it does happen frequently. This can be caused by mistaken identity or just by the officer not paying close attention to the traffic.
For example: I was driving through Salt Lake City Utah on the interstate looking for my exit. Because it was my first time driving through the city, I was going exactly the speed limit while I was trying to find the proper exit. As I was approaching an overpass a car sped past me doing at least 15 miles over the limit. The lady driving the car suddenly slammed on her brakes causing me to rush by her. Since she was passing in the right lane, when the officer got a reading that was above the speed limit he looked up and, seeing my van passing in the fast lane, assumed that it was I that was speeding. To this day I do not know if the lady had a radar detector or if she actually saw the police officer. This is a perfect example of a mistaken identity and yes, I did receive a speeding citation.
Did you know that 67% of all speeding tickets are issued within the city limits, usually for speeds less than 13 miles over the posted limit? You are much more likely to unintentionally exceed a city speed limit by 7 to 12 miles an hour, without ever realizing it, than to be speeding on a freeway. This is especially true if you drive a car that is less than seven years old; quite frankly, it is difficult to feel your real speed in a modern, comfortable automobile.
We classify most drivers into three categories: very conservative, average and aggressive. A very conservative driver could very well use a radar detector but it is not a great necessity. The rest of us need the added benefit of knowing where speed traps are and when police are enforcing those speed limits with radar or laser. Once a decision is made to get a radar detector, that is only the very beginning of your search.
Radar detectors can be loosely defined into three technologies. The first technology is basically used in commodity detectors. Commodity detectors are those that are designed with the cheapest components and the cheapest labor in order to offer you a very, very low price. These detectors have a very low reliability, a very high false alarm rate and are virtually useless. The problem is that many people are convinced by the low price and the technology claims that are written on the box. The next technology uses higher quality components, a strict engineering design and good manufacturing techniques. These detectors vary widely in performance but are the most common that you find above $200. The last technology makes use of the most advanced electronics which are fairly expensive to design and produce. These offer the best performance with the least compromise that are available on the market. They are more expensive but if one needs the performance, well worth the price.
At this point, it’s probably worth talking a little bit about the history of detectors. The first radar detectors were called passive detectors. A passive detectors like sticking your hand out of a car to feel the velocity of the wind pushing against your hand to see if it is moving. Simple and crude but effective in the world that existed 30 years ago. The next technology that came into use was basically invented by two companies Cincinnati microwave and Auto-Tronics Inc. with their Escort and Super Snooper models. Because this technology involved higher skills and design these were the only two companies that competed with the top model in the early 70s. The rest of the detectors such as Fox, Snooper, Fuzz Buster, Whistler and Micro-Eye were all passive designs. Most of these companies faded into oblivion.
As the cost of components came down, several of the companies copied Escort’s design and, by going offshore, were able to procure lower-cost components and lower cost labor. During the middle 70s radar detectors became very popular. This was largely due to the big-box companies like Wal-mart, Target and K-mart wanting to offer detectors to their customers. The problem was each of these companies wanted to offer the lowest price. In order to capture the business companies like Cobra and Whistler went to Asian countries to get components that were very cheap and to get cheap labor. As one compromise after another was made the quality of the finished product became less and less. Meanwhile, the original Cincinnati Microwave went bankrupt and the assets were divided into two newly formed companies – Valentine and Escort company. These two companies along with Auto-Tronics continue to produce high-quality, high-performance detectors. However, they were manufactured in the United States and were more expensive than the entry-level models being offered by Cobra and Whistler.
Today there’s been a consolidation in the industry and only a handful of detector companies remain. At the low end of the scale are Whistler and Cobra. During this consolidation the Escort group has acquired Bel-Tronics and more recently, Cobra. When they acquired Bel-Tronics, all manufacturing and design was moved from the United States to Canada. With the acquisition of Cobra it is unknown whether this design and manufacturing will now be moved to China. One hopes that that would not occur as the quality control and design integrity in China has a long way to go. At the performance – end of the market are three entities – the Escort group, Valentine and Rocky Mountain Radar. These companies still manufacture in North America. Valentine and Rocky Mountain Radar are manufactured in the United States, while Escort and Bel – Tronics are manufactured in Canada.
So you might wonder why this is important. If you start with the low technology product that is very inexpensive it is difficult to compete in the middle range with a performance product. For example you can take a Chevrolet and add all the options to have the same feature set as a Cadillac. Ask any Cadillac owner and they will tell you that a pimped up Chevrolet is nowhere close to a Cadillac. Unfortunately Whistler and Cobra have never maintained a high quality design and as a result they have to add feature sets such as compass, color displays, LCD display, GPS and other bells and whistles that have nothing to do with the performance of a radar detector. The idea is that they can add enough ‘features’ to make the ‘new’ product appear to be much more valuable than it really is.
The high-performance producers make subtle compromises on their top-performing units in order to get the cost down to compete in the middle market. We define the middle-market as $150-$250. Valentine does not offer a middle-market unit. The Escort group starts at $299 for their middle-market entry which still has some issues with false alarm rate and range. Rocky Mount Radar actually created a whole new design for their middle-market entry which is priced at entry-level market; the performance, however, is equivalent to the middle-market entries of the Escort group with false alarm rates far lower than any other manufacturer. At the very high end the Valentine has detectors in the $425 range with the Escort group having models priced as high as $800. Rocky Mountain Radar’s top model is priced at $400.
You might ask yourself, how much do I really have to spend if I need a detector? Once again the answer lies in your own driving habits. For example, if you are an average driver who occasionally speeds, intentionally or not, you might very well settle for a middle-market detector that will give you decent protection.
You have heard me mention the term false alarm rate several times. Why would you care about the false alarm rate? In today’s world with the proliferation of cell phones, Wi-Fi and other electronic communications there is a lot of potential interference for a very sensitive radar detector. As a result, without significant engineering effort, is difficult to detect the police radar at a great distance without also alerting on many other electronic signals. This is especially true for the low performance market which does not have the resources (engineering or financial) to properly filter out all of the electronic noise. When you have a radar detector that goes off at every Wal-mart, red light and cell phone tower, you will eventually ignore the alarms. Once you do that, you might as well not have any kind of detector at all because you will have no protection.
The high-performance detectors have exactly the same issue. They are even more sensitive with greater range than the low performance market and as a result are more susceptible to electronic interference. To remove the false alarm rate from these units takes another level of engineering and design. For example, for many years Bel-Tronics detectors were plagued with the detection of cell phone towers; it took them many years and many design iterations to help bring this under control. Valentine on the other hand decided to design a target counter into their radar detector. This was a great marketing move-it allowed them to convert irritation into information since they were unable to solve the false alarm problem. By telling their users that the target counter allowed them to know whether there was police radar in the Wal-mart parking lot, they felt that they gave the user a better level of comfort when in fact, it would be much more useful to just not detect the Wal-mart door opener at all. Rocky Mountain Radar designed extensive filtering over a period of five years to eliminate this problem. Our belief was that one should drive their vehicle passed supermarkets and department stores without getting any kind of alert unless there is actually police radar in operation in the area.
When we talk about technology, are not all the detectors basically the same? If one only looks at the block diagram and function of the detector this statement is basically true. However, there are many design options available to the engineers to solve problems and improve performance without significantly increasing cost. For example, the high-performance companies tend to add technology just like one puts Band-Aids on an injury. Each add-on solves a particular problem. Rocky Mountain Radar does a complete new design for each model that they produce. A good example of cost control is what we call dense digital integration. The idea behind this is that, instead of adding more and more components, we designed more features and functions into a single component that we already have. This allows us to add much greater performance without adding significantly to the cost while dramatically increasing the reliability by reducing the component count. For more detailed explanation of design for reliability and cost see this article.
So, where does this leave us at the end of the day? A radar detector is not an absolute necessity unless you’re an aggressive driver. An average driver may go years without a ticket but when he does get one, the cost incurred not only comes from the cost of the ticket but also from the increase in insurance cost which lasts 3 to 5 years. As we have discussed, radar detectors that retail below a hundred dollars are made with 8-10 dollars worth of components and most likely will be a large disappointment if you waste your money on it. If you’re going to buy radar detector check out all of the manufacturers and make your decision based on value, cost and performance. Don’t forget your needs as well. If you are aggressive, then you should take steps to get the best protection you can afford. It will pay for itself many times over.
For the average driver a radar detector in the $150-$250 range will give them good protection and a good value. If you are aggressive, it may make more sense to invest a bit more and get the best that there is. The best values in this range are around $400, you rarely get more than bells and whistles going above this price. Click here to get a chart with performance, cost, website and more information about the detector companies on the market today. We do not show the low performance companies, Cobra and Whistler, because in our estimation they are not worth the risk of losing your driver’s license. For more information, go to this comparison chart to help you make a decision. If you want a tutorial on how to choose a radar detector based on performance, function and features please click here.
Michael Churchman, president of Rocky Mount radar. Information at 915–587–0307.