Why Radar Detectors Matter More Than Ever

In which we deconstruct Doug DeMuro's deep misunderstanding of technology.

Interior of Alex Roy's Cannonball record setting M5
Alex Roy

Radar detectors matter more than ever, but you wouldn’t know it from the poorly researched clickbait that was Doug Demuro’s recent article, “Radar Detectors Are Useless Now.”

I like DeMuro. We’ve met. I’ve been reading him since he started at Jalopnik. At his best, Demuro is the Dave Barry of automotive. I laughed out loud at DeMuro’s Plays With Cars. He’s a great entertainer. I also know he’s not an idiot, so I can only assume he was too lazy to Google some basic facts, and willing to sacrifice his readers’ wallets on the altar of alternative facts. Sad!

Why should you trust my opinion? Because I led the team that broke the Cannonball Run record in 2007, driving from New York to Los Angeles in 31 hours and 4 minutes. I also led the teams that set the electric and semi-autonomous records in 2016 (55 hours), the 3-wheeled record (41 hours), the Key West to Seattle record (45 hours, 24 minutes), and similar records across Sweden, Spain and Portugal.

How many tickets did I get? Zero.

If you like speeding tickets, higher insurance premiums, giving your money to the government and trusting people you’ve never met, DeMuro’s your guy. If you don’t, let’s learn why detectors still matter by deconstructing DeMuro’s article line-by-line, starting with the headline:

"Radar Detectors Are Useless Now"

Did DeMuro consult with anyone before his making this sweeping generalization? RDforum.com and RadarDetector.net have tens of thousands of posts from avid detector users. If he needed a second or third opinion on the efficacy of detectors, not only does he have my phone number, he’s friends with Ed Bolian, who broke our Cannonball Run record in 2013 using the same detector I use.

I've recently come to a conclusion about radar detectors—an item that many car enthusiasts have considered crucial to avoiding speeding tickets for the last few decades. And my conclusion is: these days, in these modern times, they're useless. It's over. There's simply no point in having a radar detector anymore.

I get emails on a daily basis from car enthusiasts asking what detector to buy. Does DeMuro? Maybe this was his way on cutting down on e-mails and comments he didn’t want to (and couldn’t) answer. That opening paragraph is perfectly constructed to maximize SEO. That last sentence? A beautiful slug complementing the title in Google search results.

I originally started reaching this conclusion a few months ago, when I drove across the country and back in my radar detector-equipped Aston Martin V8 Vantage. On this 6,000-plus mile road trip, I discovered two very important things: One, radar detectors are being beaten at their own game. And two, radar detectors don't really work on modern roads.

What kind of radar detector did DeMuro use? He doesn’t say. Not all radar detectors are the same. Many are expensive bricks. If it was anything other than a Valentine 1 or top-of-the-line Escort, he’s a fool. Speeding with a lesser detector is like smoking on the way to chemo, or wearing a helmet without a flak jacket, or buying used condoms in Vegas. Even if his detector was decent, everything that follows proves he didn’t read the manual, or learn how they work, or both.

Technology is only as good as our understanding of it. Radar detectors are tools with limitations, like any tool. The invention of the power drill didn’t make screwdrivers obsolete, and no toolkit is complete without a hammer. Any project requires the very best of every tool available, and the basic intelligence not to use a hammer on a screw. Driving a car even one mile per hour over the speed limit requires a bit of preparation. An unlimited budget doesn’t guarantee victory at the track. Skill does.

I'll start with number two: Radar detectors and modern roads don't really mesh all that well. Now, in the past when you got a radar detector, you could always count on it making its little chirping sounds and flashing its lights whenever you passed an automatic door (outside a shopping mall or a grocery store, for instance) because the technology they used was relatively similar to the technology radar detectors search for. And that makes sense.

All those little chirping sounds and flashing lights that stymied DeMuro? They mean different things. You have to know what to listen for. Police radar operates in bands defined as X, K and Ka, and modern detectors can differentiate between them. Stationary radars used by door openers and burglar alarms generally operate in the X band. Older detectors — and cheaper detectors still sold today — are easily set off by X-band. That’s why detector manufacturers began offering “City” mode, which (hopefully) filters out most X-band signals. Modern detectors use Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to warn of X-band signals which may still pose a threat, but since most police have migrated to K and Ka, X-band is less of a concern than it used to be.

From the early 90’s until recently, the state-of-the-art radar detector was the Valentine One. It was the only radar detector with a directional display with arrows. In its heyday, it made every other detector look like junk. A user with a bit of intelligence and experience could easily discern from the arrows whether an alert was an actual threat. The ability to interpret feedback from tools is called judgment, much like how serious drivers interpret steering feel and tire noise to determine grip.

Front or rear alert? More likely to be a cop. Side alerts? Less likely.

More importantly, the V1 was also the first detector that was hardware upgradeable. As police radar (and sources of false alarms) evolved, so did the V1. I’ve used a V1 on every single cross-country record to date. The results speak for themselves.

The very best detectors may have GPS and a lockout feature, allowing users to tag false alarms by location. This works best for those who use detectors on commutes, but does nothing for those on a road they’ve never driven unless the device is networked. The latest solution? Connected detectors like Escort’s Max 360, which, when used in conjunction with the Escort Live subscription service, crowdsource data — whether police or false alarms — across the network.

But these days, it isn't just shopping malls. Here in 2017, virtually every modern vehicle on the road is equipped with blind spot monitoring, parking sensors, adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, and all of those systems seem to use some form of technology that makes a radar detector go crazy with flashing and chirping. Seriously: Take a radar detector down a road in a nice area, where people tend to have new cars. Every time you see a Mercedes, or a BMW -- in fact, most Fords and Chevys, these days -- your radar detector will freak out.

DeMuro is partially correct, but appears ignorant of progress on the detector side. Safety features on new cars can emit signals that set off detectors, and fixed GPS lockouts can’t address them. Today’s lesser detectors are often set off by cars whose radar-based safety systems overlap with K and Ka-band police radar, but a Google search (that took six seconds) unearthed this 2015 article explaining what DeMuro failed to mention: buy a V1 or halo Escort product, and the problem is at least partially solved. Valentine One offers a “Junk K-Fighter” hardware upgrade, and Escort’s Max 360 — which I’ve been evaluating side-by-side with the V1 for the last year — is firmware updatable. Download and install their latest database incorporating the digital fingerprints of offending mobile radar sources, and the Max 360 will filter them out from police radar threats.

Failing to update your detector is like running Windows 95 in 2017, or using an old anti-virus database. Amateur.

The number of false positives has gone from "annoying but acceptable" to "please shut up so I can listen to my music." If eight out of every nine radar detector chirps and flashes are fake, you start to simply not trust it. And then, what's the point?

If you’re driving fast enough to need a detector, you shouldn’t be listening to music. Visual warnings are seldom sufficiently clear to identify and interpret the type of incoming signal, especially if you’ve wisely mounted your detector slightly off-axis. You don’t want it in front of your head, in case you have an accident, which means you need the loudest possible warnings.

And it's not just the false positives. Modern radar detectors are expensive…

Wrong. Modern detectors are cheap compared to the cost of potential tickets, court fees and increased insurance premiums over the lifetime of the very best units. They’re a lot cheaper than using Uber or Lyft for the duration of a license suspension. A V1 with a smartphone interface and concealed display kit — both mandatory items for the serious user — is approximately $500. An Escort Max 360 — which includes the utterly essential directional display pioneered by the V1 — is about $700 with a phone interface. Add $50/year for the mandatory Premium Escort Live crowdsourcing subscription, and you possess a start-of-the-art tool.

Are they perfect? No tool is, but they’re the best ever made, and totally up to the task when used correctly.  But there’s more to that story.

...and they're being beaten at their own game by much cheaper solutions. The best example of this, of course, is Waze -- a mobile app that lets users report police presence (and other potential road dangers) so you know when to slow down in order to avoid a ticket. I've noticed two things about Waze: One, that it's tremendously accurate. And two, that it's tremendously quick. Almost as quick as a radar detector, and certainly with fewer false positives.

DeMuro thinks that because detectors aren’t infallible, a free application like Waze is an appropriate substitute. That’s like saying that if snow tires don’t give you enough grip, you should put chains on summer tires.

Waze isn’t — and never will be — a substitute for a radar detector. It is, however, the world’s greatest complementary tool for anyone who knows how to use a good detector, if you understand how Waze works. The crowdsourced data in Waze is only as accurate as the minority of users who bother to enter police locations. Waze data is totally porous. If no users are in the vicinity, no data. Even in a large group of users, one is dependent on multiple users accurately corroborating data over a short span of time in your vicinity. Waze can’t solve problems a good detector will. No amount of crowdsourcing can solve for a police car hidden behind a bridge. What if users don’t recognize an undercover car in traffic? And what if they do? Waze offers no method of tracking police cars in motion. If multiple users enter a moving police car, it appears as multiple stationary traps on the map. Accurate? Not even close.

Here’s another Waze problem. Data entry makes driving less safe. Even if you have a professional phone mount — and most don’t — entering data accurately requires navigating a less than stellar UI. Serious drivers — as in the ones most aware of the dangers of handheld phone use — are also those most likely to enter accurate data, yet the least likely to take their eyes off the road to do so. Even I — who want to help fellow Wazers as much as possible — am not always able to safely.

The good news? if you use Waze AND a state-of-the-art detector, you command a set of tools vastly more powerful than what law enforcement can deploy on the open road today.

While [Waze] suffers from some false positives as a result of taking a while to remove reports of police vehicles that may be looking for speeding drivers, Waze is generally pretty accurate -- and pretty quick -- at recognizing speed traps. If you're cruising down the highway and Waze tells you there's a police car ahead, you're likely to slow down -- a lot more so than if you're cruising down the highway and your radar detector goes off. When your radar detector goes off, the first thing you do is you start looking around for a car with adaptive cruise control.

No, Doug. Those are things you do, which are totally amateur. As the Albanian said to Liam Neeson in Taken: GOOD LUCK. DeMuro is wrong on every point. That second sentence makes no sense. Waze places and retains police reports over time based user corroboration. If you’re the first speeder to happen upon a cop moving from the location where they were tagged, you’re out of luck. Also, nothing is to prevent a false positive created by a Waze troll, like the cops who tagged empty locations to slow down traffic. What about someone who makes a mistake tagging a cop at speed and enters “other side” instead of “my side” in the silly UI?

As for slowing down every time Waze goes off, I do so only if corroborated by other factors like traffic, terrain and the recency of my detector alerts. That’s called judgment.

All of this brings me back to my cross-country road trip. Early in the trip, I had the radar detector switched on, convinced I'd be able to thwart any potential speeding tickets I might receive. As the trip went on, I gradually switched -- ditching the constant chirping and flashing of the radar detector for the soothing sounds of the person in the Waze app. By the end of the trip, I was all Waze -- and I've never looked back. And, frankly, I don't think I ever will. Goodbye, chirping radar detectors. The modern world doesn't need you anymore.

DeMuro thought his detector would thwart any potential speeding tickets? Condoms break sometimes. Does that mean no one should use them? Hey Doug, what do you think will happen if no one uses detectors anymore? I’ll tell you. A large minority of Waze-tagged speed traps will disappear. Why? Because the cop hiding behind a bridge can’t be tagged by Wazers who aren’t looking for him. A detector may be the only warning of their presence. Power detector users — the ones using Waze at the same time — are therefore Wazers’ best allies.

If technology is only as good as our understanding of it, then driving is only as safe as the user’s skill. Driving at any speed can dangerous. Driving over the limit introduces risks that only a radar detector and crowd-sourced solution used simultaneously can mitigate. Using these tools correctly takes work; more work than a columnist too lazy to use Google seems capable of. It’s an investment in time and money not everyone is prepared to make. If you’re not ready, go ahead, skip the detector and use Waze, but don’t bother going over the speed limit. Waze alone is worse than using the best detector on its own. Placing faith in technology we don’t entirely understand can lead to a lot more than tickets. It’s what led to Josh Brown’s Tesla crash, and Air France 447. The art and science of integrating a detector and Waze into your driving regimen are too complex to fit here, but I suggest starting with The Rules of Professional Speeding.

As for Doug, he forgot to include his home address in his column so his readers could mail him all the tickets they get. Since I’m a nice guy, I won’t doxx him.

Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive, contributor to Jalopnik, Road & Track, 2025AD & The New Cartographer, co-host of Autonocast and /DRIVE on NBC Sports, author of The Driver, and set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in 31 hours & 4 minutes. You may follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

[UPDATED: The K40 was the first radar detector with twin antennas, as of 1984.]