Top 9 Secrets to Getting the Most From Your Detector
A radar detector is only a tool. If you don't know how to use it, don't expect much protection.
Okay, you've bought a radar detector and are about to use it for the first time. Don't make the common
mistake of just slapping it onto the dash and cruising off. Improperly used and without knowing
exactly what information it's trying to deliver will make it worse than useless. Here are my top 9
secrets to getting the most out of your radar detector.
Secret #1: Mount it Correctly
First rule of installation: Mount it where it has a clear view of the road ahead and put it where you
can see it without taking your eyes off the road. Sure, you can tuck it away somewhere, maybe to
hide it from thieves, but what happens if the power plug comes adrift or some electrical calamity
befalls the detector and it shuts off without being noticed? And think how much of a risk is entailed
each time you look away from the road to study the detector. At 75 mph you're covering 110 feet per
second; ask yourself how much time you can devote to scanning the detector for information.
Ah, but conventional wisdom says to place the detector as high on the windshield as possible for
best performance. Admittedly this sounds like a good idea. After all, don't radio and TV stations rely on tall
towers to broadcast their signals afar? And doesn't a tall antenna on your car ensure optimal radio
reception? Yes, but police radar is entirely different from the signal broadcast by your favorite FM
For one thing, it's not omni-directional, transmitting in a 360-degree circle. A radar beam is
deliberately very narrow, as little as 9 degrees in the case of some Ka-band radar guns. And this
concentrated beam produces plenty of scatter, bouncing off anything metallic in its path and
sending ricochets at tangents to the main beam. In all my years of testing detectors I've never seen
one whose range increased when it was relocated from a passenger vehicle's dash to upper
There's another drawback to mounting a detector up high: it seriously screws up laser detection.
Keep in mind that a laser beam at 1,000 feet can be covered by a three-foot-diameter circle. The beam is so tight, not
to mention small, that if aimed at the front license plate, the favored point of aim, many detectors,
even dash-mounted, simply can't see it. Remember: The larger the vehicle, the farther the detector
will be from the front plate and the poorer its laser detection.
Viewed through the HUD of a Kustom Signals Pro Laser II, the inner section of the aiming reticle approximates laser beam width at 200 feet. Small wonder a detector won't spot it at close range.
Move it still higher and the added distance from the front plate hampers even the best detectors.
Scan the laser detection test scores, paying special attention to Field of View, the crucial ability to
pick up the fringe of a laser beam. If a detector has, say, a 24-inch average FOV, unless you're
driving a skateboard, at typical ambush range there's almost no chance it'll pick up a laser beam
unless it receives a direct hit. Such detectors might deliver good maximum range but at longer
range the laser beam has opened far wider, maybe 20-plus feet, making detection a comparative
cinch. But at 1,000 feet or less, the narrow beam will shoot right past this same detector without
setting it off.
What about splitting the difference and choosing a mid-windshield location? That's an
acceptable compromise but there are drawbacks to this as well. For one, you're advertising the fact
that you're packing a radar detector. And many cops don't like them. "To me, they're the moral
equivalent of burglar's tools," veteran Beachwood, Ohio Police Department traffic officer Bill
Balcom told me during a day-long ride-along, reflecting the view of many officers.
A time-honored technique used by traffic officers to see who's using a detector after dark is to follow
a speeder, then flick on their radar. Even if the driver is savvy enough to resist the temptation to nail
the brakes, a dead giveaway, the officer can spot the detector's visual alerts. (In the case of one
detector with very large visual displays, these can easily be seen from a
hundred yards behind the car.)
Another drawback to advertising your detector is the behavior of other drivers. If you drive under
about 90 mph on many highways, some drivers without detectors will see yours and glom onto your
tail, letting you break trail for them. This gets truly annoying, not to mention dangerous. If you
get an alert and spike the brakes, there's an excellent chance you'll get rear-ended by the moron.
My suggestion: Mount it as low as possible on the windshield or on the dash. It's the best
compromise for radar and laser detection range, not to mention concealment.
Remember: The laser's pinpoint beam width means it can target a vehicle's front license plate
without reaching a detector high on the windshield. Net result: no warning. And put it where you
can reach the controls. In particular, make certain you can reach the volume and mode controls,
such as the city /highway and mute buttons. On models lacking auto mute--rare these days on all
but the most basic units--you'll need ready access to the mute button to shut off the audio alerts
during extended radar encounters. There's nothing more irritating that being stuck in traffic and
being bombarded with an interminably-long, high-decibel audio alert caused by some roadside
Secret #2: Protect your investment.
Leaving a detector in your car in a darkened parking lot is no different than leaving a $50 bill in
plain sight. It's asking for trouble. When you're leaving the vehicle unattended, particularly
overnight, always hide the detector and its cord and bracket, both of them dead giveaways to a
detector's presence. Rub off any suction-cup marks on the windshield; they also advertise your detector's presence. And don't leave it
under the seat or in the glovebox or console where even a
drugged adolescent knows to look for it.
In summertime, another good reason to remove the detector during daylight hours is to shield it
from the debilitating effects of intense sunlight. Although a modern design is highly resistant to
heat, most are thermally-protected and will shut down at 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees
Fahrenheit) to save themselves. And it takes a surprisingly short time to reach that point, even when
the outside temperature is moderate. With the sun being magnified by the windshield glass, I
routinely find plastic-case radar detectors reaching 150 degrees F within 90 minutes. Some metal-cased
radar detectors can exceed that in 45 minutes.
Secret #3: Learn to interpret what it's telling you.
A weak K or Ka-band signal that quickly disappears may at first suggest a false alarm. (Unless you
live in one of the few areas where X-band radar is still used, weak X-band alerts are nearly always
false alarms.) But it can have other meanings. The radar may be pointed away from your direction
of travel or angled across the roadway ahead and could be far enough away that terrain
intermittently blocks the weakened signal. But it could easily be something far more threatening.
A moving radar with one or two antennas, is operated with a remote. With the unit in RF Hold (instant-on mode) it's not transmitting a signal. This is highly effective
in defeating radar detectors. All it takes to check a speed is to hit the XMT button. A target speed will appear almost instantly.
It's just as likely that your detector is listening to a trolling trooper working traffic ahead with his instant-on moving radar.
In this mode, common to all modern radar, he'll have the radar shut off, on standby. When an
interesting target approaches, he'll fire the radar and get its speed in a second or less. Then he'll
turn it off again to keep from advertising his presence to detector-equipped drivers. This technique
works against oncoming targets while the cruiser is rolling and, if he's equipped with a rear
antenna, he can also clock departing targets in the opposite lane.
And it doesn't take long. In my field test of all the frontline moving radar models for
Law & Order magazine, I found that the
slowest of the bunch could be fired at a target and read its speed literally as fast as the operator could
move his finger between the Hold and XMT buttons on the remote, about 0.45 seconds. The remainder averaged 0.24 second. And
using radar in such a fashion is frowned upon in radar training manuals, I know plenty of officers
who use it exactly like this.
So remember, if traffic is sparse, the radar may remain silent until the officer takes a shot at the
next customer to pop into view. Ignore the danger signs and that may well be you.
Secret #4: Don't expect more than a detector can deliver.
A radar detector merely confirms the presence of radar and lasers. If you can't be bothered to stay abreast of what's going on, you're asking more of a detector than it can
handle. New owners of radar detectors, once they've outwitted a few radar ambushes, tend to develop a sense of overconfidence.
years ago I produced a series of trade videotapes of new police speed-enforcement products. This entailed using a variety of police
vehicles, not to mention state patrol aircraft, radar, lasers, troopers and other players, so I planned to shoot a second video concurrently. The latter was about radar
detectors and jammers. (Hey, it's
all microwave technology, the only difference is which end of the radar gun you're on.)
From a Colorado State Patrol Cessna 182 we clocked this VW Corrado on I-25 near Castle Rock at 89 mph in a 75 zone. He made two mistakes: He failed to spot
the big VASCAR pavement stripes and he forgot to look up.
One of my directors on the project was so intrigued by the thought of owning a radar countermeasure that he purchased his first detector soon after shooting
concluded. And for the next month he'd arrive in the editing suite, bragging about how he'd shaved another few minutes off his 60-mile daily freeway commute while also
the State Patrol's radar. Finally, the inevitable
happened. He arrived crestfallen, admitting to having been popped for speeding. After listening to the details it was clear that he'd
been bagged by an aircraft working with ground units. "Your detector never went off, did it?" I asked. And he shook his head sadly. Moral: Don't take a knife to a gunfight.
If you don't mind exerting a little effort, there is a way to avoid blundering into the path of a speed-enforcement aircraft. These gadgets work equally well at
warning of multiple-car enforcement dragnets where one officer handles the hardware--usually a radar gun or lidar, sometimes a time/distance computer--and radios to "catch cars" to make the traffic stops.
The device is a radio scanner and having driven with one for years, I can say that it's absolutely useless
98 percent of the time. But it can be priceless the other two percent of the time.
My colleague could have benefited from a scanner. Instead he was relying on his detector to make him immune to speed cops, both Earthbound and airborne
varieties. But all he'd have
needed to do in this instance was to note the large white VASCAR (an electromechanical
time/distance computer that calculates average speed) stripes across the road and look up for a
circling aircraft that was timing him between the stripes. But no, he'd been cruising along fat, dumb
and happy, right into the CSP's waiting arms.
Secret #5: Use City Mode in Town
It sounds like common sense but I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who, inadvertently
or otherwise, leave their detector in Highway mode when driving in town. Not a good idea; most
radar detectors will false constantly. There's an excellent reason for providing City Mode: to cut down on
Manufacturers traditionally have used three schemes for City mode. Some reduce sensitivity, usually only on X band, the
primary polluting frequency. A few have City X+K, dialing back sensitivity on both bands. Others leave sensitivity unchanged and
merely raise the threshold at
which audio alerts begin. Visual alerts will still be present. If your radar detector is unusually prone to falsing in reaction to other radar
detectors, you'll be forced to leave it in City mode to limit the racket. But before doing so, it would be wise to find out first if sensitivity
is being dialed back, leaving far less time to react to threats. Or worse, no time at all.
Don't expect all manufacturers to volunteer this information. For instance, I recently tested a $2,028 remote (built-in and concealed)
radar detection/laser-jamming system, the K40 Calibre. These are most often found on new cars, particularly Audi, BMW, Cadillac and
Mercedes models. After finding it supernaturally quiet in town, never once issuing a false alarm in reaction to the ubiquitous X-band
door opener, we field-tested it. This revealed the secrets behind the K40 Calibre's commendably quiet operation in town.
Some radar detectors have selectable band defeat to cut down on false alarms. This allows locking-out X band and many of the automatic door
openers using that frequency. For that matter band defeat also allows the locking out of K, Ka and laser, not that any right-thinking bloke would do so.
A new method of controlling false alarms arrived with the Escort Passport 9500-series (including the Beltronics (BEL) GX65) radar detectors. These use GPS to track
vehicle speed, automatically reducing sensitivity at low
platform is the best radar detector yet at rejecting signals from
non-police radar sources, up to 30 times quieter than
competing radar detectors. More important, they come with a database of known red light camera and speed camera locations. As you
approach these, the Escort Passport 9500i, Escort Passport 9500ix , Escort Passport 9500ci and BEL (Beltronics) STiR-Plus radar detectors give audible/visual alerts and count down the distance. One of these
Escorts once saved me over a grand in tickets in a single ten-minute
Among conventional (non-GPS) radar detectors a few models have multiple levels of X-band sensitivity reduction, allowing you to
lower sensitivity to combat unusually noisy urban environments. They'll still alert to an X-band radar
gun but only at comparatively short range. In town, that will usually pose no risk since urban speed
traps tend to be short range affairs anyway. If you're fortunate enough to have a detector with
Selectable Band Defeat, you may want to shut off X band entirely to sharply reduce false alarms. (But first make certain that X band isn't being used in your driving area.
If you'd like to know what hardware your state uses, visit our store to find the Smokey Spotter Guide for your region.)
Not every model with Selectable Band Defeat is one I'd recommend. Here's a list of those I have
thoroughly tested to verify their performance, and which I use most often in my own cars. Click on
any model for in-depth information.
Secret #6: Use Highway Mode Whenever Possible
On the highway, I'd suggest leaving it in Highway mode for two reasons. One, to give the best
possible detection range. Two, to restore the audible alerts for low-signal-strength encounters. If you
forget and leave it in City mode, the detection range of many models will be so limited, particularly
on X band, that they'll fail to warn of instant-on radar working traffic up ahead.
Beltronics (BEL) and Escort radar detectors have an Auto mode in which the computer adjusts sensitivity automatically to suit
ambient conditions. Models with this feature are higher-end pieces with extreme
sensitivity, and while Auto mode reduces detection (warning) range, they still have
plenty in reserve. But for absolute maximum range outside of town, I'd recommend returning them
to Highway mode.
If you're driving with a GPS-enabled Escort Passport 9500i, 9500ix, 9500ci or Beltronics (BEL) GX65, there's something you need to know about using Auto mode. In
Auto, sensitivity is automatically adjusted according to your speed. If you're moving at less than 45 mph, it's running at less than full sensitivity. No big deal if you run into
conventional traffic radar. But if you blunder into the beam of a mobile photo radar van, you'll need every available Decibel of sensitivity to catch the feeble signal. My advice: just leave the BEL or Escort in Highway mode. They're so quiet they hardly ever
false-alarm anyway, even set at maximum sensitivity.
Secret #7: Don't wait to react.
This one's important, so listen up. Here's why. On one magical occasion while checking the top speed of a VW GTi test car on a desolate northern New
Mexico road, I outbraked a point-blank radar attack although driving far over the posted
limit at the time. I popped over a hill on a rural two-lane state highway and met a short line of cars.
As the detector nearly jumped off the dash I spotted a highway patrol car bringing up the tail end of
the procession. Knowing that his instant-on radar should have clocked my speed well before I could even
reach the brake pedal, nonetheless I applied maximum braking, feeling the anti-lock brakes
shudder in protest as the tires scrabbled for traction.
By rights he should have nailed me. But in his excitement--this likely would have been the biggest speeding bust of his career--by
mistake he hit the button for the rear antenna, instead of the
front. Brakes smoking, I was under the limit before I came abreast of him. Moral: don't wait to react.
If I hadn't nailed the brakes, the knee-jerk reaction demanded on such occasions, I'd have driven
directly into the beam of his rear antenna. Bingo: time to meet the judge.
Secret #8: Adjust your speed instantly
When you get a strong signal-strength alert, it means the radar is close by, possibly already
clocking you. Even when braking seems a waste of time, give it your best shot. This saved me on
that occasion in New Mexico. Years earlier in the Texas Hill Country northeast of San Antonio, I
failed to notice an approaching slicktop (no light bar or overhead emergency lights) Texas DPS
highway patrol car. The detector went off, I saw him barely 800 feet ahead and didn't bother to touch the
brakes. There was no way he could have missed me. So I motored past him at well over the limit
and watched as he U-turned and pulled me over.
As he handed me the ticket, the trooper smiled and confided, "You shoulda hit the brakes when you
saw me. Didn't get a speed on you comin at me. Got you going away, with the back
Years later, now a certified police-radar instructor and qualified to train police officers in the proper
use of radar, I have a far better understanding of the vagaries of radar operation. There are occasions when,
for some reason, radar simply declines to do its job. Press the Transmit button at point-blank range
and inexplicably, no target speed appears. Blame it on electrical gremlins or maybe bad kharma,
but whatever the cause, radar doesn't always get its target. So even when it seems a waste of time,
use the brakes promptly. You might get lucky.
One caveat here: Always be aware of traffic behind you before initiating panic braking. If some
clown is tailgating you, stomping on the brakes could well have him center-punching your back
bumper. And be aware of weather and road conditions as well; a brisk application of the brakes is
the last thing you need on slippery or potholed pavement or if you're driving a vehicle with unequal
Secret #9: Stay Alert
It sounds like common sense but face it, there are different levels of alertness. If you're a typical
driver, you devote perhaps 10 percent of your attention to driving and look no more than 50 feet
ahead. A detector will sometimes tip the scales in your favor, but if you stray beyond 10-12 mph
over the limit it's only a matter of time until you get stopped.
If you're a vigilant driver you're constantly updating your situational awareness. You'll know exactly
the location and relative speed of surrounding vehicles. You're scanning the road up to a mile
ahead, studying other traffic and the road surface, looking for trouble. You're scrutinizing every
approaching vehicle from as far away as possible, scouting for the opposition. Hard work? Of
course; that's why so few devote this much effort to the task of driving.
There is one proven way to level the playing field: educate yourself on exactly how police radar, lasers and other speed-measuring
equipment works and how it is used against
you. But this also takes some effort: You'll need to spend some time reading a book. (You may remember the book: made of paper, has words and pictures,
serves as a non-perishable, instant reference even if - heaven forbid - your PC is down.) Those truly in search of knowledge won't mind, but the rest will be content to wait
for the movie. Meanwhile all except these savvy few will
continue to be among the hordes of clueless drivers, blithely awaiting their next speeding ticket.
My advice to everyone else: Just slow down. It's a lot cheaper.