Last updated 10/28/2012
Redflex speed camera lies in wait along an urban interstate. Most red light cameras record comparatively few violations. But speed cameras are vastly more profitable for the public-private consortiums that install them under the guise of promoting safety.
In an event that would affect drivers nationwide, Arizona in 2008 became the first to saturate a major transportation corridor with photo enforcement
cameras, better known as speed cameras. Anyone driving through Arizona on an interstate had to run a gauntlet of cameras along the freeways, 18 in metro
Phoenix alone. In addition, many of the Arizona Department of Public Safety's fleet of 100 photo radar vans could be found lying in wait along the same routes.
Arizona is ground zero for photo enforcement, the first in the nation to use it and headquarters for the two companies that dominate the U.S. photo enforcement market,
Redflex Traffic Systems and American Traffic Solutions or ATS. It was also the first to launch a well-orchestrated--and taxpayer-funded--campaign by the Governor's Office of Highway Safety to spread cameras to every corner of the state.
Using the Arizona program as a model, other states quickly followed suit. 28 had cameras at last count and that number is growing rapidly. Most deploy red light cameras first, an easy sell to the public since the consequence of that violation is obvious. But once public furor subsides, the programs inevitably expand.
Next are tickets for right turns on red. Pull up to a red light with no traffic anywhere, fail to stop completely and bing you're nailed for a red light violation. Speed-on-green is also quietly added to the list of offenses monitored. This turns every camera into a 24/7 speedtrap. Next step: speed cameras, Arizona's favorite cash cow--at least until the statewide program was cancelled.
Speed cameras monitor only speed and they can be anywhere, Any vehicle traveling over a threshold speed is nailed, the ticket mailed to the registered owner.
Another popular application is the mobile speed camera, long an enforcement staple in countries in Europe, Australia, the Pacific Rim and Middle East, among others. Stateside, Illinois and Maryland led the pack in blanketing highway construction zones with speed vans. Judging from history, the vans inevitably will begin drifting away from construction zones onto mainstream roadways. Look for other states to follow suit.
Most speed vans use ultra-low-powered K- or Ka-band radar. Concealed in an innocuous van or mini-SUV, they're difficult to spot and the radar is fiendishly difficult to detect. Only a handful of high-end radar detectors proved up to the challenge in our recent test.
How to deal with this multiple-prong electronic assault? The only solution is a radar detector with built-in GPS. These use the Global Positioning System to determine their location and compare it to an internal database of known camera sites. Approach one and they sound a warning.
But to counter those pesky radar vans, extreme sensitivity, or long radar range, is vital. This also pays dividends in combatting conventional radar.
Which detector offers the best protection against all of these threats? To find out, we gathered up several high-end GPS models for a test. Included were the Beltronics (BEL) Pro 500 and from Escort, the Passport 9500ci and Passport 9500ix. Also, the range-topping Cobra XRS 9970G. Here's what we found, the results presented alphabetically.
Beltronics (BEL) Pro 500
The BEL Pro 500 is a cloned Escort 9500ix, slightly different in appearance but identical under the skin, with an almost identical feature set. One feature missing is AutoLearn, which automates the process of locking out nuisance signals. In the BEL, this requires a brief triple-tap of the mute button. BEL thoughtfully provides two buttons for this task. One is the Mute button on the detector, but more convenient is the mute button on the clever Smart Cord power plug module.
Like the BEL STiR Plus remote model, the BEL Pro 500 uses parent company Escort's Defender camera database. It's an excellent database, the best of those we scrutinized in an 18-month-long camera database accuracy test.
The BEL Pro 500 camera-alert system works well. Warning range varies according to vehicle speed, giving enough advance notice but without pestering the driver with needlessly-long alerts.
In radar-detection performance the BEL Pro 500 was a mirror image of its sibling, the Escort Passport 9500ix, exhibiting class-leading detection range on all three radar bands. It also equaled the Passport 9500ix in protecting from the lethal Redflex Traffic Systems photo radar vans.
False alarms were rare with this BEL Pro 500 radar detector. In an extended highway test, it alerted only twice to non-police radar signals over the several-hundred-mile trip. In contrast, the comparably-priced non-GPS model used as a comparison, a Valentine One, alerted 91 times, all but seven of these false alarms. This was a graphic illustration of the supremacy of GPS over conventional technology in eliminating false alarms.
- Excellent radar sensitivity
- User-friendly controls
- Extremely resistant to false alarms
- Highly effective against speed cameras
In town, the BEL Pro 500, like the Escorts, employs two additional strategies to limit false alarms. Sensitivity is controlled automatically and varies depending upon speed.
At the slow canter typical of dense rush hour traffic it dials back sensitivity considerably. And at the fast trot common during maneuvering through parking lots, sensitivity
seems to drop to almost nothing.
This behavior is best illustrated by the BEL Pro 500's reaction to the ubiquitous X- and K-band automatic door openers. At highway speeds (with GPS turned off) it'll alert to these
at a quarter of a mile or more. With GPS engaged, even at point-blank range in parking lots it will stay silent until it's within a few yards of the door.
The second GPS-based strategy to cut urban falses is nuisance signal lock-out. This works the opposite of the known-location marking used to warn of speed cameras. By storing the location of a false alarm source--usually a door opener--the BEL Pro 500 will stay silent when encountering the same radar source in the future. This ability to lock-out non-police microwave signals makes the BEL and Escort models vastly quieter in town than the Cobras, giving the Pro 500 top honors in its price class.
Cobra XRS 9970G
Retail-priced at $389.95, the Cobra XRS 9970G uses the same electronic innards as the Cobra XRS 9960G and has identical performance.
Its touch-screen OLED 1.5-inch display is larger than most. Visual alerts and status information are depicted in brilliant 3D graphics, making this one of the more stylish models on the market. This visual entertainment is a mixed blessing, however. An OLED display must be bright, to be legible in sunlight, but even at its dimmest setting, at night this one is like watching TV.
To lessen the visual distraction, the display automatically disappears after a user-adjustable delay, leaving a tiny amber LED blinking slowly to verify that it's receiving power. During daylight hours the LED is generally invisible, leaving the driver wondering if it's even working. The LED can be seen more readily at night, but in either event, status checks mean having to tap the display to wake it up.
Unlike the BEL and Escort dash-mount radar detectors, the Cobra XRS 9970G has no integral GPS receiver. It shares the corporate plug-in GPS module, which does the job, although it's prone to becoming dislodged while the unit is being handled, sometimes dropping off the detector and disappearing under the seat.
One key feature missing on the Cobra XRS 9970G and other Cobra GPS models is an ability to lock out nuisance radar signals like radar-controlled automatic door openers. The BEL Pro 500, the BEL STi-R Plus remote and all of the Escort GPS models (Passport 9500ci, Passport 9500ix, Passport 8500CI Plus) can do this, and it gives them a huge advantage.
Without this capability, the Cobra acts like a non-GPS, conventional-technology radar detector and continues to false-alarm whenever it encounters nuisance signals. This trait is also shared with the Cobra iRadar system, a combination smartphone app-Bluetooth-radar detector package.
- Excellent K/Ka radar sensitivity
- Gorgeous display
- Attractively priced
- Separate GPS module adds complexity
- No ability to lock-out nuisance signals
- Frequent false alarms
Cobra iRadar and the competing Escort Live system were both used by some contestants in our ill-fated First Annual, Every-Other-Year XX Radar Rally. In that event the vast difference in the two systems' ticket-prevention effectiveness was amply documented.
The XRS 9970G and all Cobra GPS models depend on the company's Aura camera database to warn of red light and speed cameras. Aura lagged badly behind competing databases in accuracy and failed to warn of many cameras, as we learned in an 18-month test of these databases.
We also found the XRS 9970G very prone to issuing false alarms in reaction to radar detectors in other cars, most often on Ka band. Ironically, make of these are generated by older Cobra radar detectors. We consider X-band or even K-band false alarms less troubling as those frequencies are shared with
an abundance of non-police radar devices. But most of the latest police radar guns use this frequency and frequent Ka-band false alarms can induce complacency, leading one to disregard an alert with unfortunate consequences.
This Cobra has some compelling attributes but with its design compromises and chatty nature, the Cobra XRS 9970G, while a major improvement over a non-GPS radar detector as a speedcam defense, still has some rough edges that may diminish its attractiveness to serious drivers.
Escort Passport 9500ci
Escort Passport 9500ci custom-installed remote. A built-in radar detection/laser-jamming system is out of sight, one of its greatest
The Escort Passport 9500ci is the line-topping remote model, GPS-enabled with standard laser jammers. Its radar antenna and twin front laser "shifters" mount in the grille area. A third shifter mounts at the top of the rear license plate.
It's not the only remote model available with laser jammers. One K40 model, for example, is claimed to be a contender. But that assertion strains credulity a bit, judging from the results of our comparison test of the two.
The Escort Passport 9500CI is operated by a thumb-sized control unit designed to be mounted within easy reach of the driver. Visual information is delivered by a blue LED display that shows alerts, operating mode and other vital information. If an even lower-profile installation is required, the display can be omitted, replaced by a bi-color LED. This can be panel-mounted, including inside the speedometer/tachometer cluster for a factory look. For the same reason, the control unit is sometimes mounted inside the ashtray or console, keeping it invisible as well.
The Escort Passport 9500CI shares an electronic platform with its clone, the BEL STiR Plus. The latter has a red LED display and is available without the laser shifters, at a lower price.
One of the Escort 9500ci's major attractions is its discreet, built-in components. There's no advertising its presence to curious thieves or vigilant lawmen. Those concerned about keeping a leased vehicle unmodified needn't worry; the two interior components are backed with double-sided 3M tape and are merely pressed-on to a flat surface. Any 1/8-inch holes drilled to accommodate the radar antenna or front laser shifters remain invisible.
A panel-mount USB connector is provided in the installation kit for Defender camera database updates (don't even think about installing this detector yourself; hire a pro). A laptop links to the system via USB cable to effect the data transfer.
World-class radar-detection range is one of the hallmarks of the Escort Passport 9500ci
For updates, you'll first need to log-on to the Escort Web site and register, supplying serial number and key code and then download the Detector Tools app. Once that's installed on the laptop you can download the revised database. The directions caution that the 9500ci must be attached to the computer and powered-up before beginning to update. The updating process takes about two minutes.
Like the BEL Pro 500 and its BEL STiR Plus sibling, the Escort Passport 9500ci rarely false-alarms. With the AutoLearn feature, nuisance signal lock-out is automatic. After three encounters with a roadside false-alarm source, it automatically stores the signal to memory and declines to alert to it again. If a new signal is detected, the Escort 9500CI alerts as usual.
The system is so effective, and though we discourage this practice, it will allow the Escort to be operated in full-sensitivity highway mode while driving downtown in a major city, insanely impractical in competing models.
There's no argument about the Passport 9500CI's performance--its radar-warning range is the best of any model we've ever tested, equaled only by the BEL STiR Plus. It slightly outperforms even the fabled Escort Redline, the current record-holder among non-GPS windshield-mount models.
The Escort Passport 9500CI's lofty price means it will most frequently be found in high-end cars. But for those shopping for the ultimate in a high performance, remote radar detection/laser-fooling system, the Escort Passport 9500ci is literally in a class by itself.
Escort Passport 9500ci
"...likely the best radar detector ever"
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World's best custom-installed radar detector/laser jamming system
Own the finest GPS-enabled custom-installed detector on the planet today.
- Blue-backlit control module
- Blue LED text display plus bicolor alert LED
- GPS protects from red light cameras
- Speed-sensitive radar sensitivity
- Twin front, single rear laser shifters
- Optional: Mirror built-in display (call for details)
- One-year warranty
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Escort Passport 9500ix
We continue to be impressed with the Escort Passport 9500ix. But its radar performance, amply quantified in our most recent test, is only one of its strengths.
A radar detector's balanced, overall performance is what separates the winners from the also-rans. Just as driving a Ferrari F50 may be a life-altering experience, not many would choose it for daily transportation. So we're equally impressed by how well the Escort Passport 9500ix acquits itself as a constant companion in varied driving environments.
Among its noteworthy attributes is the ability to remain silent, courtesy of its integral GPS. Like the BEL Pro 500, BEL STiR Plus and its Escort Passport 9500ci sibling, when the Escort Passport 9500ix sounds an alert, it's very likely to be legit. This is a highly prized virtue for any radar detector, and in light of this Escort's extreme sensitivity and expanded information-delivery capabilities, all the more remarkable.
The higher tariff for the Escort Passport 9500ix buys some worthwhile extras, AutoLearn for one. The detector evaluates each signal and remembers its location and frequency. Pass the same signal at the same location three times and the Escort automatically locks-out the source as a false alarm. (In the event that it guesses wrong, the user can countermand this action.)
Another way the Escort 9500ix eliminates false alarms is by automatically varying sensitivity based on road speed. Radar is no threat when you're sitting gridlocked in traffic and the Escort Passport 9500ix dials back sensitivity accordingly, increasing it again as speed rises.
It's worth noting that the feature is available only on Escort and BEL GPS-enabled models. With Escort's stranglehold on key patents, competitors can offer only Band-Aid measures to simulate this effect. Cobra, for example, has IntelliMute Plus, which eliminates audible alerts under a threshold speed. But to engage this feature, the driver must place the detector in setup mode, rev the engine to the same speed experienced in top gear at the desired road speed, then press some buttons. Nor does Intellimute work with diesel engines or with all gas-engine vehicles.
- Amazing resistance to false alarms
- Industry-best against red light cameras
- Class-leading radar sensitivity
- Wide array of user preferences
Another critical feature that's MIA on competing radar detectors is the user's ability to lock out non-police radar signals. All that a Cobra or Whistler will allow is for the driver to mark a location, after which an alert will sound when returning to those GPS coordinates. But Cobra offers no way of denoting why the location is marked, leaving it up to you to remember the details.
So is the Escort 9500ix significantly quieter than non-GPS radar detectors? We took the trouble to measure the difference; watch the results for yourself in the video. Or see the scores from our latest test.
Like all of these GPS-enabled radar detectors, the Escort Passport 9500ix will display your car's speed, both continuously and also, if you wish, at the onset of an alert, letting you know if it's time to nail the brakes. There's also a range of alternate displays, including vehicle voltage.
Escort caught the GPS wave before the competition even realized the surf was up. Photo enforcement is in the U.S. to stay and it will only become more pervasive. A
GPS-enabled information-delivery system like the Passport 9500ix is the right product to counter this threat and in our opinion, it arrived at exactly the right time.
Escort Passport 9500ix
"...best GPS-enabled detector on the planet"
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