President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the driving force, pun intended, behind our current Interstate Highway system. This has been attributed to his memories on the Lincoln Highway, the first road to cross the nation, as he travelled with a military convoy as a young army officer in 1919. Decades later this led to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.
As the number of cars exploded alongside of new ability for families to travel the country, so did the local authority’s ability to generate revenue. Local governments were left in charge of setting speed limits, and highways ensured large numbers of visitors passing through. By the 1980s, about 90% of all speeding tickets were issued based on police radar guns.
As cars continued to advance, a wide margin began to open up behind the higher end cars and the lower end cars. The nicest cars on the road were far superior in handling, breaking, and impact protection. Speed limits were often set as a protection for the less equipped vehicles occupying the roads. The overwhelming presence of radar and the frustrations around these restrictions led to the rise of the radar detector.
The First Radar Detectors
The first radar detectors hit the market in the 1960s, but it took until the late 80s before they started to reach widespread use. By that time, the cost and size the units had come down considerably and the U.S. was still trapped under a federal 55mph speed limit enacted during the gas crisis, the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act. While drivers had access to safer, more efficient vehicles than ever, police departments were also taking advantage of the reduced cost of radar. It went from a piece of specialty equipment to standard issue in every car.
As the popularity of radar detectors grew, the police for stepped up their countermeasures. States started to enact legislation to ban radar detectors. Since these laws were hard to enforce, devices were developed to detect radar detectors. Leaked radio signals from radar detectors were used to alert police that they were in use. The police began to regain the edge that they’d had for so long.
In the spirit of good capitalism, companies immediately began adapting their radar detectors to be harder, if not impossible, to detect. Some units included a device to find the new detection units used by police and to immediately shut down any internal components providing a signal. Others moved their frequencies into new bandwidths. The police continued to take countermeasures by moving to Spectre III RDD units and beginning to adapt laser radar guns over the traditional radio units.
Laser Speed Detection
Radio units send a blast of radio waves at traffic and read the returning results, making them easier to detect. Laser radar sends a narrow beam and is typically directed at a specific car. A standard beam is only 18 inches wide at a distance of 500 ft, making them difficult to detect. Police can target specific cars but it requires them to actively target vehicles. The unit fires a laser at vehicle, typically targeting the grill, front plate, or windshield. The area must reflect the laser, and that reflection is used to calculate speed.
Radar and Laser Jammers
Next on the scene were jammers, designed to make sure that the results of the police radar units were inconclusive. Some radar detectors had this as an additional feature but detectors generally worked well enough to provide protection. With the rise of laser units, jamming became increasingly popular as the most effective way to deter police. Laser jammers would mimic the laser reflections but provide data that simply didn’t make sense to the police unit. The laser gun in turn would not be able to provide a readout of the vehicles speed.
Keep It Legal
Currently, radar detectors are only illegal in Virginia and Washington D.C.; all other states no longer have legislation in place. No U.S. states have laws against laser jammers themselves; however 10 have laws against using these devices against police. The current list of states includes the following but be sure to check local laws regularly to keep ahead of any changes.
- South Carolina
Be especially careful to check local laws if you’re traveling outside the U.S.