Jamming Ol' Smokey
by Craig Peterson
Last updated: 2015
Early Phazer, Patriot and Eclipse jammers from Rocky Mountain Radar.
"I could ship an empty black box with a weight in the bottom and only get 22-24 percent back," inventor Mike Churchman told us.
For those seeking more protection than a detector can deliver, there's a veritable smorgasbord of gadgets claiming they can cloak your car with an impenetrable electronic shield. Some promise protection from radar, others from lasers; some claim they can defeat both. Another group promises protection from photo radar, the stealthy camera-radar system used in fewer than 20 U.S. cities.
Passive jammers claim to jam radar by receiving the inbound microwave beam, mixing with it some white noise, then reflecting the altered signal back to the radar, so confusing it that no speed is displayed. Active jammers transmit a signal designed to make the radar disregard its own return signal, placing it in an endless loop as it continuously tries to acquire a speed. Not surprisingly, active jammers are illegal to operate.
Passive jammers transmit nothing and are perfectly legal. Passive jammers were invented by Mike Churchman, proprietor of Rocky Mountain Radar. We first tested Churchman's magic boxes in 1993 and have since tested all his products, including the best-selling Phazer ($200) , claimed to jam radar and laser and Phantom ($350), claimed capable of both detecting and jamming lasers and radar.
See how Rocky Mountain Radar jammers and others fared in our latest laser jammer test.
In reaction to past stories we've written for Automobile Magazine, the BMW Roundel, Mercedes Star, AutoTronics and Car Audio & Electronics, among others, the resourceful Churchman quickly renamed these same boxes--the new appellations include Illusion, Shadow, Eclipse, Patriot and Avenger among others--and continued doing business without missing a beat. He's also produced several private-label versions with names like Barrier-RDR and Barrier-LSR.
Except for the Phantom, which contains rudimentary radar-detection circuitry, each is essentially an empty box with a 12-volt power cord, a cheap cast-plastic waveguide assembly, one or two front-mounted LEDs, a basic power-supply circuit and a button or two. Press the button and an LED lights up, accompanied by a tinny bird whistle. ("Our patented 'FM Chirp', " company salesmen proudly proclaim.) We've tested these products a dozen times against every front-line police radar gun and laser, finding all of them utterly worthless.
Interestingly, while we were riding with Texas Highway Patrol trooper Mack Wallace near Houston recently, he stopped a Dodge minivan with Colorado plates. On the dash was a spanking new Phantom jammer. The van pilot was told he'd been speeding. "Impossible," said the agitated driver, "my Phantom jammed your radar."
"Didn't seem to be doing much jamming when you came by me," deadpanned the trooper. "I got you at 69 mph in a 55 mph zone. Maybe you should take it back, ask for a refund."
On another occasion, for a film production we had borrowed a Gatso photo radar unit, complete with marked Ford Explorer police vehicle, and were operating it next to busy six-lane I-225 near Denver. On the rear of the radar van we had mounted a giant speed display. During a break, we noticed a new Monte Carlo pass by several times, a time-consuming maneuver since it entailed a six-mile round trip between freeway exits. Then the Chevy pulled in next to us and the passenger window slid down. "I jammed your radar," the twenty-something driver said gleefully.
And how, I asked, had this been accomplished?
"With this," he said, pointing to a Phantom jammer on the dash. "I came past you three times and the sign didn't show my speed until I was right on top of the radar."
"The radar's supposed to work that way," I told him. "Target speed isn't read until the vehicle is within about 50 feet."
No way, he insisted. The jammer saved him. And it worked equally well against lasers.
Whatever. Then I had an idea. "Tell you what," I told him. "We've got a new Kustom ProLaser II and an LTI Marksman. Why don't you back up about 700 feet on the shoulder and when you're ready, flash your lights and drive toward us. We'll try to get you on the lasers."
He loved the idea and backed slowly away from us. When he was in position I handed the LTI laser to an assistant and hefted the ProLaser myself. When the pleased Phantom owner flashed his lights and started rolling, we both aimed and fired. Each laser displayed a target speed before he'd gone 30 feet. On impulse I snatched up a Kustom HR-12 hand-held radar when he'd closed to about 500 feet, pulling the trigger to lock in his 35 mph target speed. When he pulled alongside, we showed him all three readouts.
"This can't be," he said. "I just paid $350 for this jammer--and it's so good they'll pay for any tickets I get."
His concern was understandable. The allure of a gadget guaranteed to make you invisible to police radar and lasers is undeniable. And nobody enjoys learning that they've been conned. But despite the fact that Rocky Mountain Radar's wares now appear in reputable mail-order catalogs, complete with promises of ticket refunds, they simply don't work. Our suggestion: save your money.
Another passive jammer is the Mirage 2001, aka The Watchful Eye, priced variously from $150 to $250. When we prepared to test one in 1995, shortly after its national debut, company exec John Turner insisted that we position the radar at least 3,000 feet away before driving toward it in the jammer-equipped target car. Forget it, we told him. Typical radar target range in the real world is more like 700 feet. Turner left in a huff with his jammer.
After purchasing a Mirage/Watchful Eye anonymously, we discovered why Turner was so insistent on the vast separation between target vehicle and radar: this jammer actually increased the distance at which our three radar units could begin clocking the target vehicle. This is a function of its large antenna. We found that at ranges beyond the radars' typical operational maximum--about 1,400 feet on average--the jammer's big antenna reflected enough extra energy to pump up radar range by up to 500 feet. Try explaining that to the arresting officer.
One jammer that worked--sort of--was the Phantom RCD ($600). Originally labeled the Stealth VRCD, it was designed by David Sullivan, a Silicon Valley microwave engineer of exceptional talent. The Stealth employs four powerful Gunn oscillators--the same gadgets that generate a radar gun's microwave signal--to produce a strong jamming signal. It does so after it detects the police radar and deciphers its exact center frequency. Then it broadcasts a return signal which the radar accepts as its own. But target speed varies so wildly that the radar dismisses it as noise and continues trying to lock on. So engaged, it refuses to display a target speed.
When we were first to test a prototype Stealth VRCD in 1993 we found it capable of some amazing feats. On one occasion, while doing a test for Truckers News magazine, it made a barn-sized Kenworth cab-over tractor disappear from five of our seven radars even at point-blank range. But its performance was spotty--sometimes it refused to jam anything at all--and we found that bumpy roads tended to set it off accidentally, leading to flat-spotted tires and ragged nerves while the driver searched anxiously for lurking police cars.
Another significant drawback: only X- and K band are covered. The prohibitive cost and extra bulk imposed by adding Ka-band components dissuaded inventor Sullivan from attempting a triband unit. At the time it probably seemed a worthwhile compromise. But the roads are becoming littered with Ka-band radar these days.
Worse, when the current generation of police radar with Digital Signal Processing began appearing in 1993, we learned that their lightning-fast signal processing will easily outwit the Phantom RCD's much slower, analog circuitry. And since DSP radar has nearly replaced the older units, driving today with a Stealth can be risky indeed.
License plate covers began appearing in 1990 not long after photo enforcement became popular. Most use a clear prismatic material that's claimed to allow the plate to be read from directly behind the vehicle. Get off-angle a bit and the plate becomes obscured. Great concept but as we discovered, the execution is a bit flawed.
Recently we rounded up every plate cover available and tested them against each type of photo-enforcement threat--red light and speed cameras, and photo radar. We also tested spray-on material that claims to make the plate so reflective that the glare overpowers the camera and overexposes the photo.
None of this stuff worked. The Photo Blur and Photo Blocker sprays proved especially worthless. Read more >>
There are more countermeasures we'll examine in a future story. Meanwhile, be advised that the countermeasures market is positively awash in fast-talking con men, fringe loonies and mad-scientist inventor types.