Electronic Countermeasures for Hassle-free Driving
by Charles Bauer
Last updated 2015
|Protect Your License Today With a High Performance|
Just west of bucolic Show Low, Arizona I was settling down into a relaxed cruise at a sedate 55 mph after an hour spent sampling Highway 60 through the gorgeous Salt River Canyon and its Alpine-like switchbacks and scenic delights. A passing Arizona Highway Patrol trooper looked at me hard, U-turned sharply and whistled up behind, light bar aglow. "I'm stopping you because your vehicle fits the description of one we've been looking for," the trooper explained. "We've had a citizen complaint of somebody passing them at high speed and driving dangerously."
Excuse me? Driving a little faster than the 25-35 mph advisory limits in the curves, maybe. But dangerously? After decades spent attending driving schools ranging from Bondurant road racing to anti-terrorist and police pursuit schools, with years of racing experience and a mania for excellence in driving, I was thoroughly insulted. But the episode got worse. After a fifteen-minute radio conference with a cohort, the trooper creatively accused me of averaging 89 mph through the canyon, a feat so ludicrous that even Michael Schumacher in an F-1 Ferrari couldn't dream of accomplishing it.
As a former reserve police officer I knew full well the Arizona trooper was violating an unwritten rule: no officer writes a citation for an infraction he hasn't witnessed and based solely on hearsay, merely suspects might have occurred. But niceties like that didn't bother this guy as he handed me a $306 ticket worth four points and hundreds of dollars more in insurance surcharges. How to protect yourself from official misconduct like this? Simple: carry a scanner.
These special radio receivers come in several flavors but all enable you to listen in on public service channels, including those employed by police and highway patrols. Had I been packing a scanner I'd have heard the Arizona Highway Patrol dispatcher putting out a BOLO (Be On the Lookout for) advisory on my vehicle - an unmarked police-package Ford, no less - and I'd have had ample time to disappear until things cooled off. Like it or not, drivers of sports cars are also high profile targets for overly ambitious speed cops. For this reason, arming yourself with a scanner can mean avoiding unpleasant encounters with unscrupulous state troopers or, more likely, simply giving yourself advance notice of a speed trap ahead.
This new generation of compact, high performance scanners will also lets you monitor NOAA weather channels for the latest travel advisories. Or you can listen in on paramedics racing to emergencies, a handy way to get advance notice of traffic-snarling accidents in your path. Those with an interest in hearing the fire department as they battle fires can have a front row seat as well.
Better yet, if you drive in one of the 38 states that use aircraft for speed enforcement, by entering the correct frequency you'll be able to hear the airborne trooper talking with ground units below, giving you plenty of time to check your speed before arriving in the area. Due to the aircraft's height these transmissions can often be picked 20 or more miles away.
In truth, there
are a staggering number of frequencies you can monitor, everything
from trains to taxis; if they're talking on the airwaves, chances
are you can hear them on a scanner. (Keep in mind that mobile scanner
operation is illegal or limited in a few states; check with your
local authorities to be sure.)
In choosing a scanner, remember that all models are not created
equal. At a minimum you'll want one that monitors VHF low, VHF high
and UHF bands where the public service, government, law enforcement
and NOAA weather operate. Since many large police departments are
moving to 800 MHz trunked systems, for total coverage you might
consider a model with this capability as well. Some newer scanners
also offer 900 MHz reception, the latest band that's increasingly
being used for cellular communications and land mobile communications.
The better models offer some desirable features and functions:
- WX: Instantly searches all seven NOAA weather frequencies and locks on to the one active in your vicinity.
- Scan delay: adds a short delay after each transmission received so you won't miss out on the reply
- Illuminated display: helps you keep track of which frequencies and bands are being monitored when it's too dark to read the digital display
- Detachable battery pack (for portables): lets you swap a fresh battery quickly for extended listening sessions
- Priority channels: tell the scanner which frequencies are most important and it automatically gives priority to them whenever they become active
- Automatic search: with a mind-numbing array of frequencies in use, it's not always possible to know which one you're looking for. This feature lets the scanner search for the right frequency automatically.
To sample the capabilities of portable scanners, I collected two hot new models suitable for road warriors interested in keeping tabs on the weather and road conditions as well as on Smokey. Then I loaded them into my car and headed out on a giant loop, up into the Colorado Rockies, south into New Mexico, back to the eastern plains and north on Interstate 25 again to Denver. Along the way I encountered snow, rain, ice, accidents, state troopers, county sheriffs and a host of other perils. After a thousand ticket-free, maximum rpm miles, here's a rundown on these models and what it was like to live with them on the road.
The Uniden Bearcat BC 245XLT ($270 manufacturer's suggested retail) is a hand-held, programmable scanner that has a complete portfolio of features: detachable, rechargeable battery pack; scan delay, backlit display, automatic search, low battery warning, keypad lockout (to prevent accidental erasure of frequencies stored in memory) and, best yet, 12-band coverage. Aside from VHF and UHF bands, it also receives 800/900 MHz frequencies, amateur radio bands, FRS and nearly every conceivable federal, military and public service band. An impressive looking package, the BC 245XLT has a mind-bending 300-channel capability with ten banks of thirty channels each. Equally important, the BC 245XLT is a TrunkTracker II model, which means it can follow a radio call through the electronic maze created by the new 800 MHz trunked radio systems, a feat ordinary scanners find impossible.
It also has Smart Scanner allowing the user to download the closest 300 frequencies available within a given zip code, eliminating the need to manually program each one into memory.
This is serious scanning power for a portable unit small enough to hold in one hand. Since it's possible to scan only specified banks of channels, the Bearcat is ideal for long highway trips where you'll be passing through several states. After consulting a scanner frequency directory, available from Uniden, Cobra, Radio Shack and others, choose the state patrol frequencies from the appropriate states and enter them in different channel banks. Then when you cross into a new state, just activate the channel bank with the appropriate frequencies and you're back in business again. Like better scanners, this Bearcat has a search function to assist if you're looking for an unknown frequency by programming.
The next scanner is by far the most interesting. The Uniden BCT12 Bear Tracker, now out of production, looked like a pumped-up radar detector and came programmed with a huge database of law enforcement frequencies. To check up on state highway patrols, for example, the user just scrolled through the list of states visible in the LCD, entered the two-letter state code, then pressed "Hwy" and the unit automatically called up the correct frequencies for the state selected. Or you could pick "Police" and monitor local lawmen. Another option was to select both. It also monitored Department of Transportation channels and even had weather channel reception.
But there's one added feature that gave this unit its name. About half of the state highway patrols equip their officers with hand-held radios so that when away from the safety of their cruisers, they can remain in contact with the dispatcher or other units. But since the small radio often doesn't have enough power to talk to a distant transmitting tower, mobile extenders are employed. These small transceivers, mounted in the patrol vehicle, communicate between the officer's portable radio and the cruiser's more powerful police radio, giving him clear communication with the dispatcher. In most states, when the dispatcher keys the microphone, it sets off every mobile extender in the state. By listening for that specific frequency, the Bear Tracker sets off audio and visual alarms to let you know that a highway patrol car is within two or three miles.
Nice concept, but does it work? Well, it used to. In a 1991 trip from Boston to Tulsa and back, of the thirteen encounters I had with state police, only once did a trooper get within radar range without me knowing he was coming. That was in Illinois whose mobile extenders are only triggered when the trooper uses his hand-held radio. If he's using the car's police radio, all bets are off.
Unfortunately, many state police agencies began shifting to trunked 800 MHz systems in the mid-Nineties. And while the latest scanners can follow both sides of a radio transmission trough the trunked labrynth, mobile extender frequencies can no longer be detected by the old BCT-10 or BCT-12, the final iteration.
A current-model Bear Tracker is a great information tool for the road warrior. For optimal performance it's advisable to tap into your vehicle's stock radio antenna using the furnished Y adapter. If that prospect sounds intimidating, a Uniden representative said the typical cost of having a professional installation is on the order of $25 to $50.
Another option is to use a separate scanner antenna, either a magnetic-mount rooftop model or a permanent, bolt-on unit, something most are reluctant to do since it's an unnecessary complication, not to mention an advertisement that you're radio-equipped, an open invitation to thieves. But I can verify that even using the little factory-supplied clip-on rubber-ducky antenna still gives respectable reception.
Packing a scanner won't assure you of ticket-free driving but it can sure help even up the odds. Now that prices are down and performance up, it might well be time to go shopping for one.
Getting the Frequency
Law enforcement agencies operate on five bands: VHF-Lo (30-50 MHz), VHF-Hi (148-174 MHz), UHF-Lo (450-470 MHz), UHF-Hi (470-512 MHz) and 800 MHz. Urban departments have been increasingly moving to UHF frequencies, particularly to 800 MHz, to better cope with the problems created by tall buildings and other obstructions common to cities. Highway patrols mainly use VHF-Hi with a few still operating on VHF-Lo. And it's easy to find out who uses what: several excellent scanner directories are available. The easiest to get hold of locally are from Radio Shack which produces a series of regional police/ fire/emergency directories at about $7 each. If you stray far from home you'll likely have to purchase several of them for complete coverage.
If simplicity is important, you can order from Cobra Electronics their excellent Scanner Frequency Directory ($14.95) in either Eastern USA or Western USA editions. It lists all FCC frequency allocations for a mind-boggling array of users: land transportation (taxi, railroad, DOT, motor carriers); government (state, local including local police, National Park Service, USDA); business/industrial, marine, press, mobile telephone, aviation, fire and others.
Uniden Corp. also has either Eastern/ Western US volumes or a series of regional directories for $14.95 each. Like the Cobra books, its directories offer a wealth of information on scanners and frequencies and even offer the opportunity to join a national scanner club.