Anti-Red Light Camera Radar Detectors
Which protects best from radar, lasers and cameras?
by Charles Bauer
Last updated: 2015
In an event that would affect drivers nationwide, Arizona in 2008 became the first to saturate a major transportation corridor with red light and 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 these 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 included was the range-topping Cobra XRS 9970G. Here's what we found, the results presented alphabetically.
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 the BEL Pro 500. 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.
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 will 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 radar signals makes the BEL and Escort models vastly quieter in town than the competition, 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 significant 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.
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 camera defense, still has some rough edges that may diminish its attractiveness to some.
Escort Passport 9500ci
The Escort Passport 9500ci is the range-topping built-in (remote) model, GPS-enabled with standard laser jammers. Its radar antenna and twin front laser "shifters" mount in the grille area. Optional is a pair of rear laser jammers.
It's not the only remote model available with laser jammers. The K40 Calibre, for example, is claimed to be a contender. But that assertion strains credulity a bit, judging from the results of our comparison test of these two.
The Escort Passport 9500ci is operated by a thumb-sized control unit intended 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 information. If an even lower-profile installation is required, the display can be axed, 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.
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 tape and attach to a flat surface. Any holes drilled to accommodate the radar antenna or front laser shifters remain invisible.
A USB connector is provided for Defender camera database updates. A laptop is linked to the system to effect the data transfer.
Updates reguire logging-in to the Escort Web site and registering, supplying serial number and key code, then downloading the Detector Tools app. Once that's installed on the laptop the revised database can be downloaded. Directions caution that the Escort 9500ci must be attached to the computer and powered-up before beginning. 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 Escort Passport 9500ci's performance--its radar-warning range is the best of any remote model we've tested, equaled only by the BEL STiR Plus. (Surprisingly, by a few feet it was trumped by the amazing Escort RedlineXR, the current record holder.)
The Escort Passport 9500ci proved equally adept at countering lasers, the effectiveness of its Laser ShifterPro jammers earning them a first-place finish in a recent laser-jammer test.
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 model, the Escort Passport 9500ci is in a class by itself. Learn more about the Escort Passport 9500ci.
Escort Passport 9500ix
A radar detector with balanced overall performance is what separates a winner from the also-rans. Just as driving a Ferrari F50 may be a life-altering experience, not many would choose it for daily transportation. For that reason we're impressed by how well the Escort Passport 9500ix acquits itself in mixed driving environments. Its radar performance, quantified in a recent test, is only one of its strengths.
Among its 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 prized virtue for a radar detector, and considering the Escort's superior sensitivity and expanded information-delivery capabilities, all the more notable.
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 sitting gridlocked in traffic and the Escort Passport 9500ix dials back sensitivity accordingly. It raises sensitivity again as speed rises, maximizing radar detection range.
It's worth noting that this 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 a certain speed, then press some buttons to lock it. Intellimute doesn't work with diesel engines or with all gas-engine vehicles.
One vital feature that's also missing on competing GPS-enabled radar detectors is the user's ability to lock out non-police radar signals. They continue to alert to the same nuisance signals.
Nor do they allow the driver to mark a location and tag it as, say, a speed trap. Each user-marked spot gets the same generic label, forcing the driver to remember its significance.
Is the Escort Passport 9500ix significantly quieter than non-GPS radar detectors? We took the trouble to measure the difference; watch the results in the video. Or view the scores from our latest test.
Like all of these GPS-enabled radar detectors, the Escort Passport 9500ix will display the car's speed, both continuously or only at the onset of an alert, telling if it's time to nail the brakes. There's also a range of alternate displays, including vehicle voltage. Learn more about the Escort Passport 9500ix.
Photo enforcement is here to stay, making GPS-enabled detectors like the Escort Passport 9500ix an attractive choice for many.