Reviewed: Red Light Camera Detectors
Using GPS to watch for Big Brother's cameras
by Craig Peterson
Last updated 6/24/2012
Red light (speed) camera detectors use GPS to provide advance warnings of photo enforcement hot spots. Counterclockwise from top, Cheetah GPS mirror, Navalert, Whistler RLC-100, Cheetah C100.
If you're plagued by red light and speed cameras, help is available. These pole-mounted cameras have a weak point: they're immobile and can't hide. (Another weakness: a proven inability to slow traffic down or reduce accidents, but that's another story.)
The Brits have endured speed cameras far longer than we have and not surprisingly, were among the first to offer
a solution: the red light camera detector.
Don't get these confused with radar detectors since with fixed red light and speed cameras, there's no radar present to detect. This makes even the best radar detector useless for avoiding them. (But there are
a few highly-sensitive radar detectors with integral GPS like the Escort Passport 9500i, Escort Passport 9500ix and the Bel (Beltronics) GX 65 making them excellent countermeasures for both threats.)
The red light camera detector is not terribly complex technology, just an amalgamation of GPS and an updatable memory chip, plus audible and visual alerts. Loaded with the coordinates of fixed speed cameras, it warns when one is approached. (Nearly all mobile speed-camera vans use radar and you'll need the very best radar detector to counter these. If you're looking for a top radar detector that's GPS-enabled, first read my radar
Radar Detector Buyer's Guide.)
A few enterprising souls began importing British red light camera detectors a few years ago and other models have joined these. Late last year I gathered samples and tested them over a nine-month period. (A fifth model, from Cobra, reached market too late to be included.)
To review these red light camera detectors I evaluated their mounting systems, controls and the effectiveness of their displays and alert systems. I also installed manufacturer-supplied software and updated them over the Internet, looking for any show-stopping glitches. And I logged a few thousand miles encompassing three states and 14 urban areas, checking the accuracy and currency of their databases. The latter rates more than passing mention. If a red light camera or speed camera isn't in the datbase, there's no warning. If a nonexistent camera location is flagged, you're
pestered by a phantom alert, which is nearly as vexing. As I would learn, some red light camera databases are better than others.
Here's what I found, the results listed alphabetically.
Cheetah GPS mirror
The Cheetah GPSmirror (the product's trademarked spelling) incorporates a GPS chip, LED display, speaker, switches and other components into a mirror that's designed to slip over the stock rearview mirror. Spring-loaded clamps easily affix it to the stock unit and it's powered by the vehicle's 12-volt system.
The recommended routing for the Cheetah GPS mirror's power cord is across the windshield header, down the passenger-side A-post and under the dash to a power point. Trim panels must be pried up and the power cord wedged underneath to keep it from coming adrift. I also used wire ties to secure the cord under the dash and to bundle up its excess length. (An optional hardwire power cable is available and makes for a tidier installation.)
Although it remains, strictly speaking, a portable device, once installed it's unlikely that most owners will be eager to move it between vehicles. Aside from having to reinstall the power cord, the Cheetah GPS mirror's size can be an issue. At its widest points it measures 12.5 inches, and it's 3.5 inches tall. Even accounting for dimensional curvature, it's a 37-square-inch mirror. For comparison, a 2009 Nissan 350Z roadster's mirror, a good-sized unit, measures 10.5 by 3.125 inches, about 33 square inches.
The Cheetah GPS mirror's generous width caused it to immobilize one or both sun visors on five of the seven new vehicles we tested it in. Aside from the 350Z, that included two Hondas, an Audi A8L and a Jaguar XF. Not surprisingly, XXL-size vehicles were an easier fit; both the Infiniti QX 56 and Ford F250 Super Duty accommodated the mirror without compromising the driver's sun visor. I'd
advise anyone contemplating the Cheetah mirror to first consider whether they're willing to give up one or more visors in trade.
The Audi A8L installation revealed another mounting consideration. The A8L's inside mirror is set back from the windshield several inches and suspended from the windshield header. This placed the Cheetah GPS mirror's antenna under the roof's sheet metal and partly obscured its vision. It worked acceptably well in open country but when driving from Payson, Arizona east through the national forest, pine trees blanketing the roadsides further hindered its view and rendered it helpless for the next two hours. (A Cheetah spokesman said that the A8L's windshield tinting would have hindered radio reception and it should have been fitted with the optional external GPS antenna. He may be right although for the record, during the trip we operated several models of radar detectors--as well as a Kustom Signals Directional Golden Eagle Ka-band moving radar--at various times and noticed no problems with their performance.
But this gear looked through the lower windshield area with far less tint to impede signal transmission.)
The Cheetah red light camera detector clearly was designed around a right-hand-drive vehicle. For instance, two primary controls, the volume and on/off switches, are both located on the right, making them more easily accessible by the passenger than the driver. The power switch is buried in the top right corner of the mirror, making it a long reach for some belted-in drivers. Fortunately, the cigarette lighter plug has an on/off switch, useful to avoid having to fumble for the mirror's switch.
A series of four push buttons along its lower edge controls the Cheetah GPS mirror. These are mounted almost flush with the housing and like the other switches, three of the four are hidden and must be located by touch alone, perhaps not the ultimate in ergonomic design. For a device that invites frequent user interaction, its control layout can sometimes frustrate.
The Cheetah GPS mirror provides an array of elegant, highly visible icons of different colors for mode indication and alerts. A single red character depicts direction of travel while a central four-character LED display shows time of day, speed and other data.
Voice alerts call out vehicle speed as a reminder when approaching a marked location and their threshold speed is adjustable. The Cheetah GPS mirror sensibly refuses to alert to camera-flagged locations unless the current direction of travel coincides with a camera-monitored approach. (In the automated-enforcement industry, an approach is one camera (or one set of cameras, if they're catching the driver's face) monitoring one direction of travel. Most intersections have cameras along a single approach, e.g., watching the east-west or north-south traffic, and targeting either approaching or departing vehicles. Some have two sets of cameras, but they'll usually be working in tandem, monitoring vehicles traveling along the same road.)
In camera-saturated metropolitan areas this alert strategy substantially reduces the number of unnecessary alerts. As with radar detectors, too many false alarms can lead to complacency, with predictable results.
One handy feature is called Rescue Me: press a button and a voice announces current GPS coordinates. In an emergency one can hold a cellphone up and let the unit automatically supply accurate location data to an emergency operator, leaving no chance of a stress-induced error.
Unique in this market is the Cheetah's optional radar detector and laser jammer wireless interface modules. When linked to a high-end radar detector or laser jammer, a module communicates wirelessly between it and the GPSmirror. The mirror delivers their audible/visual alerts (radar band ID and laser) and depicts signal strength via beep frequency. (The modules also work with the Cheetah C100 red light camera detector.)
If an OEM system includes laser jammers (Escort Passport ZR4, Passport ZR3), a visual indicator verifies when they are transmitting. For radar/laser detectors without jammers, a Radar Detector Interface Kit ($109) will suffice. To link a Valentine One radar/laser detector to a popular laser jamming system, a second module, the Laser Interface Kit ($119), is required. A keyfob transmitter remotely controls power to the jammer, a nice design touch.
The current list of models compatible with the wireless system includes the Valentine One, Escort Passport 8500 X50, Escort Passport SR7, Escort Passport SRX; BEL (Beltronics) STi Driver, BEL (Beltronics) RX 65, BEL (Beltronics) RX 75.
The system is touted as a way to quiet the Valentine One, a very sensitive radar detector known for its plentiful urban false alarms. Thus equipped, the V1's audible alerts are delayed until an adjustable threshold speed is reached. The Cheetah GPS mirror's city mute function allows a choice of voice alerts, warning tones or both. Another unique feature of the wireless system is an ability to disable alerts for a particular radar band, further reducing false alarms.
We linked a Valentine One to the system and everything worked as promised, eliminating many of the nuisance alarms. The only possible downside is the added complexity of the additional hardware and wiring that's necessary to get all the electronic bits communicating with one another.
For motorcyclists, Cheetah offers the Vizalert, a waterproof, wireless visual alert system. Alerts and status information from a radar detector, a laser jammer or both are sent by radio signal to the helmet-mounted visual display. The unit can be controlled by a handlebar-mounted on/off switch and automatically powers-up in reaction to motion.
Six LEDs of various colors denote band ID, laser detection and laser jamming. LED blink frequency depicts signal strength. Other motorcycle radar detector systems I've tested use a single color for all four radar and laser frequencies, making it impossible to deduce if the source is an automatic door opener or police radar. This gives the rider only two
options: brake sharply for each alert or ignore it. The eventual consequence will be an expensive encounter with a gent wearing a sidearm and a badge. For this reason the Vizalert's comprehensive visual band ID makes it a vastly more effective warning system.
Aside from eliminating blind spots, Cheetah touts the GPSmirror's wide-angle design as optimal for rear-seat child-monitoring duty and I'd have to agree. The driver can see nearly every square inch of the interior aft of the B-post—plus a generous amount of scenery on both sides of the vehicle—and I guarantee that nothing much bigger than a well-fed gerbil can approach unseen from the six o'clock.
But the unnaturally wide field of view creates enough visual distortion to make it almost impossible to accurately judge distances and closing rates. On traffic-choked interstates, changing lanes takes extra concentration and many are likely to find the altered view somewhat disconcerting. At night the effect is even more pronounced.
The mirror is coated to reduce headlight glare at night. But it doesn't seem to do its job notably better than nearly every OEM auto-dimming mirror I've seen, most of which are junk. The Cheetah GPSmirror's convex design reflects more light than I'd prefer and for drivers who check their rearview mirror every three to five seconds, it's distracting.
Cheetah claims that its proprietary Trinity database is the world's largest speed camera registry, covering 33 countries. I found it to be top-tier in comprehensiveness and accuracy. Updates, available at unpredictable intervals, are easily downloaded and generally reflect recently added camera locations. Better yet, at press time U.S. Cheetah customers were receiving a lifetime database subscription.
- Comprehensive array of useful functions
- Accurate database and lifetime update subscription
- Interfaces with radar detectors, laser jammers
- Quite large
- Ergonomically optimized for right-hand-drive cars
- May interfere with passenger's sun visor
- Wide-angle distortion tough to live with, especially at night
Verdict: A quality product, but more targeted at minivan drivers seeking to keep an eye on the kids in back.
The Cheetah C100 is a diminutive alternative to the Cheetah GPSmirror. It offers the same features and virtues but with few of the mirror's drawbacks. Its compact case, like the Navalert's, has a matte black finish that stolidly resists glare.
Speaker volume is controlled by a thumbwheel switch while a row of four top-mounted switches handles menu functions. These are chromed, unfortunately, generating a dazzling mirror image of themselves in the windshield during sunlight.
The Cheetah C100 red light camera detector is supplied with a windshield bracket whose triple suction cups grip the glass tenaciously. The bracket release is located on the bottom of the C100's housing and when I mounted the unit low on the dash, there wasn't room to slide a finger underneath to press it.
Featherweight construction means it can be easily bent and at speed, it bounces uncontrollably on all but the smoothest roads.
A better alternative is to dash-mount the unit. An anti-slip pad is supplied for this purpose and works surprisingly well. Just flop the pad down on a flat surface and place the unit atop it. Unless you typically execute each corner in a four-wheel drift, it'll probably still be there at the end of the trip. Velcro (not supplied) works equally well.
Like with the Navalert and the Cheetah GPS mirror, the C100's design suggests that it hails from a region where they drive on the wrong side of the road. The volume adjustment, for instance, is located on the right side of the unit, farthest from the driver, and is best manipulated using the tip of the forefinger, rather than the heel of the thumb, as on the Whistler. Additional confirmation of the Cheetah's national origin is provided by a female voice whose dulcet tones are clearly upper-class British.
The large amber LED display provides road speed and distance-to-camera, in meters. It offers good daytime visibility in a range of lighting conditions. But it's way too bright at night in open country and could benefit from a dimmer switch. It's flanked on the left by the same 16-point compass to be found in the Cheetah GPS mirror and its other icons look very familiar as well.
User programming is simplified compared to the Cheetah GPSmirror and benefits from its more easily reached and closely-spaced controls. Its compact size and flexibility of mounting greatly simplify installation chores in comparison to its larger sibling.
The C100 supports Cheetah's wireless interface modules, enabling it to be linked to a detector, a jammer or both at once. In this role the C100 supplies the audible and visual alerts.
On the road it behaves identically to its big brother, reliably alerting only to cameras deemed to be a threat. Its more wieldy size and simpler operation make it the easier of the two to install and to use. Like the Cheetah mirror, the C100 comes with lifetime access to database updates
- All of the Cheetah GPSmirror's virtues with few of its drawbacks
- User-friendly programming
- Supports wireless interfaces with radar detectors, laser jammers
- Insubstantial windshield mount
- Upper brightwork generates windshield reflections
Verdict: A well-sorted-out, effective piece of gear.
The Navalert's case is a dark matte color, the best of the bunch at resisting windshield glare. No provision is made for windshield mounting; it's dash mount-only. A magnetic base must first be stuck to the dash. Then the Navalert sits atop the mag-mount.
This arrangement works well but you only get one shot at choosing a mounting location; the adhesive isn't reusable. I'd suggest a site that's directly in your line of sight, for the pale green display disappears in sunlight and requires concentration to interpret at other times. It's easily read at night, though, and closer to optimal that the others on dark rural roads.
This is obviously a product designed for world consumption, witnessed by no fewer than one dozen time zone settings -- GMT plus or minus hours -- by its metric distance display and non-U.S. menu items.
Aside from the customary GPS features—current direction of travel, road speed and GPS coordinates—the Navalert has some useful extras like an altimeter, trip elapsed time, trip odometer and average speed.
Two operating modes are available. Safe mode warns not only red light cameras but also of "possible mobile speed cameras", high collision areas and "school zones (during school hours)". Cam mode warns only of speed cameras. After enduring almost constant alerts, nearly all warning of suspected hazards other than speed cameras, I chose the latter mode for its quieter operation.
Audio volume is controlled by a thumbwheel switch. A menu button controls all functions and since there's no separate option-selection button, it must be pressed for varying lengths of time to call up menu items and select an option. Choices are audibly confirmed by various combinations of beeps and chimes. It's a slow, non-intuitive and clumsy method and I wouldn't suggest leaving home without the user manual.
Alphanumeric visual alerts include camera ahead, current speed, the speed limit, and distance to a marked location. Distance is in meters, requiring a bit of practice to make quick conversions from metric to American units of measure.
In Cam mode, voice alerts are limited to system-ready, camera locations and overspeed (road speed compared to the posted limit) warning. An all-clear chime sounds when the danger point is past.
User locations, or points of interest (POI) can be marked by the user but can't be flagged according to their nature. Upon returning to a marked location, the Navalert gives an audible/visual alert, but it merely indicates you've arrived at a user POI—no way to tell if it's a red light camera or something inconsequential that caught your fancy the last time you drove past. This trait is shared by all of the units tested. In contrast, the BEL (Beltronics) GX 65 and the Escort Passport 9500i, Passport 9500ci and Passport 9500ix GPS-enabled radar/laser detectors permit the user to mark locations according to type, a more elegant and useful approach.
Updating the database is a straightforward affair. After downloading and installing the update program, I followed the manual's directions for database updates and plugged the unit into my PC with its mini-USB cable. Then I downloaded the most recent update and installed it, a brief, painless process.
There were some hiccups in the Navalert's performance. For instance, it sometimes displayed speeds in kph units rather than mph. Warnings of "overspeed" near camera locations frequently were wrong because the database's speed limits were incorrect. And I found that the "overspeed" voice alerts can become annoying. Raising the speed threshold is possible and the feature can also be disabled, but first it'll need to be linked to a PC that's logged-on to the corporate Web site download page.
The default alert strategy gives an extremely long warning distance, 500 meters followed by a second alert chime at 200 meters. This is more than is necessary in many urban situations and only adds to the cockpit distraction. This item can also be adjusted, but only while the unit is logged-on to the Internet.
The Navalert only alerts to stored locations if your direction of travel coincides with the intersection approach that's camera-monitored. This is a smart strategy -- also employed by the Cheetah C100 and the Cheetah GPS Mirror -- and vastly reduces the number of alerts to cameras that pose no threat.
The Navalert database is clearly not as complete or as current as the others'. Updates are less frequent than the competition's and seem to appear irregularly every four months or so. More emphasis seems to be placed on adding new sites than in removing obsolete sites from the registry. It frequently alerted me to camera sites that had been deactivated or removed two or more years previously. And it was more prone than the others to omitting camera locations.
- Eye-friendly, non-reflective housing
- Simple, quick database updating procedure
- Dim display
- Obtuse user-programming procedure
- Error-prone database
Verdict: reasonably effective product but lags in some key areas
The Whistler RLC-100 is the smallest and least expensive red light camera detector I've tested. Visualize a 0.75-inch-tall stack of business cards and you'll be close; it's a quarter-inch shorter overall and only marginally wider. The Whistler's bite-sized packaging makes it a good candidate for those looking to add camera detection capability to a non-GPS radar detector.
Like the Navalert, it's intended only to be dash-mounted and comes with both a sticky dash mat and a self-adhesive magnetic puck for that purpose. Its black case has a glossy finish and the top is adorned with white lettering, leading to some windshield reflections on sunny days.
There's no power-on switch on the detector; a slide switch on the power plug controls that. Audio volume is handled by a thumbwheel switch on the left side. The two buttons atop the case are multifunction, one each for menu and feature selection.
Whistler RLC-100 red light camera detector is available with adapter power cable to link it with non-GPS, high-performance radar detectors like the Whistler Pro 78SE, the Valentine One (above), Escort 8500 X50 or BEL (Beltronics) RX65.
One unique feature is a 12-volt output jack that accommodates short radar detector interface cords. These fit most Whistler, Cobra or BG Tech-sourced models made in the past 15-odd years, plus a couple of high-end models. It reduces cord clutter and frees a vehicle power point, which alone can make it worth the $11.95 investment. A mini-USB cord is included and is used when connecting to the Internet for database updates.
The Whistler RLC-100's green LED display was the most readable of the group and, like the Cheetah C100's, can be overly bright at night on dark roads. It normally provides road speed and when a speed-camera alert is generated, it counts down the distance in yards. (Metric speed and distance units are a menu option.)
The flash frequency of two blue LEDs flanking the display denotes distance-to-camera and makes alerts tough to miss, even if the audio has been shut off. The alert-speed threshold is adjustable from 50 to 100 mph, in 10 mph increments.
Voice alerts with a female British accent identify three types of marked locations: red light camera, speed camera or user-selected. Up to 100 of the latter can be added by tapping the menu button.
Unlike the Cheetah and Navalert detectors', the Whistler RLC-100's alerts are not directional. This means that it will alert to cameras on intersecting roads and to those monitoring opposite-direction traffic, even if none of them poses a threat. As a consequence, in speed camera-rich environments the Whistler cranks out considerably more alerts than its competitors, leaving it up to the driver to calculate how best to react.
Database updates are free for one year, available afterward by subscription. At press time there were no updates yet available on the Whistler Web site, so I can't venture an opinion on the task of downloading one. [Later production models now provide a dimmed display setting, adjustable alert zone and a way to silence the admonishments to fasten seat belts, a part of the startup sequence. — Ed.]
- Simple operation
- Low price
- Auxiliary 12-volt power jack
- Effective audible/visual alerts
Non-directional alert scheme
Verdict: Compelling price and performance in a tiny package.