As people endure longer commutes and growing traffic jams, they are increasingly tempted to hit the gas pedal harder. Police are fighting back with a web of electronic surveillance, from laser and radar speed traps to automated cameras that spot speeders and issue tickets by mail.
To improve their odds, committed speed demons (and scofflaws) are resorting to a new generation of high-end radar-detection devices. These gadgets, which include the $399 Valentine One, the $450 Escort Passport 9500i and the $450 Bel STi Driver, promise to help drivers spot and avoid radar and laser speed traps. The new models, which detect a wide range of radar bands and lasers, are touted as having better range and more sensitivity than their predecessors while generating fewer false alarms.
Some models use global positioning systems, typically found in navigation devices, to locate other possible pitfalls. The new $440 Cobra XRS-R9G, for example, alerts drivers to red-light and speed-sensing cameras, which are being used in New York; Philadelphia; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and a growing number of other cities.
Make no mistake: Speeding can be lethal. Though the devices are legal for passenger cars in most states, they are frowned on by police officials and safety groups, who stress that speeding is a destructive habit that wastes fuel, slows traffic by causing accidents and costs thousands of motorists their lives each year. "Radar detectors are used by drivers who intend to speed, as opposed to drivers who inadvertently speed on occasion. And speeding is a big safety problem on our roads," says a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group funded by the insurance industry.
Consumer interest in traffic-monitoring systems is growing as people spend more time in their cars and travel farther annually than they used to, according to federal statistics. As growing traffic congestion causes more delays, some motorists are tempted to make up time by going faster. Radar-detector companies say their customers aren't crazed speeders but regular drivers who feel they have a right to know if they are being monitored and want extra protection.
"Look, I'm not a kid and I'm not a big speeder, but I like to be aware when I'm driving," says Barry Lane, 68, a school administrator from Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., who has used radar detectors since the 1980s. He says the devices have helped him on many occasions. A couple of years ago, for example, his detector chimed just as he came over the crest of the Delaware Memorial Bridge into New Jersey. The warning gave him just enough time to slow down while approaching a well-hidden police speed trap.
As navigation systems, voice-activated phones and a range of warning chimes have proliferated in even the most basic vehicles -- and people have become more accustomed to interacting with electronic gadgets in their cars -- devices that warn of police activity have begun to seem more mainstream.
All these factors have led the radar-detector industry to experience "a sort of rebirth," says John Larson, chief executive of Escort Inc., the closely held maker of the Passport 9500i.
Radar detectors first became popular in the 1970s after the U.S. adopted a national 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. Even though the limit helped cut highway deaths and improve fuel economy, motorists widely flouted the rule. For many drivers, keeping such a slow pace felt increasingly frustrating as cars' power, handling and overall performance improved markedly through the 1980s. The 55 mph limit was repealed in 1995, and soon after speed limits began creeping upward state by state, typically to 65, 70 or 75 mph.
While raising limits was supposed to reduce the number of lawbreakers, it seems to have had the opposite effect. Many drivers tend to exceed the limits even when they are set high. Research indicates the higher limits resulted in a 35% increase in deaths on rural highways in the four years after speed limits were raised, the insurance group says. Vehicles are capable of higher speeds than ever, and advanced engines, suspensions and tires make them stable, quiet and easy to drive at high speeds.
Police and other safety officials say they are confounded by people's need to speed, because the danger of driving too fast seems obvious. Speeding was a contributing factor in 31% of traffic fatalities and accounted for 13,543 traffic deaths in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Police say excessive speed makes it harder for drivers to negotiate turns and maneuver or stop their vehicles in emergencies.
One problem is that drivers, the broader public and politicians tend to view speeding as a harmless infraction that everyone commits occasionally, according to the Insurance Institute. People are more offended when drivers run through red lights or drive drunk.
Speeding is also getting more expensive. States and municipalities that are cash-strapped often use speeding tickets as a way to generate revenue, and insurers penalize drivers for moving violations. Virginia, where radar detectors are illegal, caused a stir last year when it rolled out "abusive driving fees." While it applies to a number of moving violations in addition to speeding, the new rule became widely known as "the $3,000 speeding ticket" because fines and fees can reach and even top that amount. Despite the moneymaking potential, the Virginia State Police say the fees don't affect the way they enforce traffic laws, and police in general say they don't enjoy issuing traffic tickets.
"Safety is the bottom line for us, so we want to slow drivers down because speeding costs lives," says Corinne Geller, public-relations manager for the Virginia State Police. Ms. Geller says police there generally don't "hide" so they can more easily catch speeders. Indeed, they try to be as visible as possible because "the best deterrent is a blue-and-gray [police car] in your rear-view mirror," she says.
Copyrighted, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.