Police have tools to stop high-tech speed demons
Although some gadgets can help drivers avoid speeding tickets, obeying the limit is still the only sure-fire way
By Roman Gokhman

You're driving to work, running a little late. You're going a few miles over the speed limit, but that's OK because you have the latest in radar detection technology.

That doesn't mean you won't see red and blue lights of the California Highway Patrol and get handed a citation that will make you see red.

More and more people are finding out their radar detectors don't do them any good against officers using lidar, an infrared laser that can catch speeders from 1,000 feet away.

Despite several technologies available to make cars "invisible" to police, the best way to avoid a ticket remains the same.

"Drive at a safe and prudent speed," Dublin CHP Officer Steve Creel said.

Whether from the air or the ground, police have three ways to spot and ticket speeders: radar, lidar and vascar. Radar is the most common.

A radar gun sends out radio waves at a specific frequency at the speed of light in a conical pattern. Any moving object that passes through any part of the cone hits the signal. An officer does not have to point directly at a specific car, and the size of the cone varies.

"It depends how strong the transmitter and receiver are," Pleasanton Police Traffic Officer Aaron Ackerman said.

The waves are absolved, refracted and reflected in all directions. Some of the reflected waves get back to the gun, which measures the time it took for the signal to come back and determines how fast the object was traveling.

Radar works accurately from in front or behind traffic, so it would not pick up a speeder that passes in front of it from left to right or vice versa.

A radar detector works basically the same way, sending out waves looking for a continuous transmitted signal and alerting the driver when they find one. The reason most detectors have so many false warnings is because many things -- from a microwave to a garage door opener -- send out a continuous signal.

"The chief complaint with radar (detector) owners had been false alerts," said Roy Reyer, a retired Arizona Sheriff's lieutenant and founder of Radarbusters, which reviews and sells radar and lidar detectors.

He said the best radar detectors are made by Escort and Beltronics.

"They take out about 80 percent of (false alerts)," he said. "Their stuff is top-of-the-line."

A good radar detector also will penetrate through all objects except lead, and pick up a signal even around tight turns, he said.

Reyer was a traffic radar instructor for his department, and started Radarbusters in 1998 when he retired after 20 years. The goal was to review products and help people avoid tickets, he said.

Drivers, at all costs, must stay away from another anti-radar device known as a jammer. Being in possession of one, even if it is not being used, is a felony throughout the country. Jammers work by sending out a similar frequency to the one police use. The slight variation in the frequency confuses the radar and causes it to shut down.

"It's illegal to jam or attempt to jam a police radar," Reyer said.

Laser technology

Lidar works similarly to radar, using the same technology surveyors use to measure speeds and distances. An officer spots a speeding vehicle in a viewfinder and a sensor measures the time it takes for a beam of light to bounce off the car and return, displaying the vehicle's speed.

Lidar is always mounted to a vehicle.

Police say there are several advantages to the newer technology. The lasers allow officers to spot and pick off individual speeders from 1,000 feet away. Even if the driver knows a lidar is nearby -- lidar detectors do exist, Reyer said -- it's already too late.

"A laser detector is just going to tell you 'pull over, you got a ticket,'" he said.

The disadvantage for police is that the gun has to be pointed at a specific vehicle to get a reading. At its maximum, the beam is about one foot in diameter.

The only effective way to get past a lidar, Reyer said, is an active laser jammer. It works like this: Say a lidar is a flashlight pointing at you. A jammer is a massive spotlight pointing right back at the lidar, overpowering it.

It's 100 percent effective, he said, and there are no federal laws that prohibit it. However, several states, including California, have laws that outlaw lidar jammers.

The third tool police can use is called visual average speed computer and recorder, or vascar for short. Police can do this with a computer or a stopwatch: All they need is the distance from Point A to Point B and the time it took to get from A to B going the speed limit. If someone else drives the distance in less time, they are speeding.

Vascar is illegal in California and is considered entrapment under the vehicle code, Creel said.

Tips for a ticketless life

Even the best radar detector is imperfect when police use "instant-on radar."

"An officer has radar in standby mode until he sees you coming down the road and turns it on," Reyer said.

While in standby, the radar does not emit a continuous signal.

"A person with a cheap detector will not be able to pick that up," he said. "A person who has a high-end radar detector (might)."

The good news for drivers using radar detectors is that police don't have an ace up their sleeves as to how to beat those detectors. Law enforcement across the country are allowed only three bands of frequency for radar.

"There's no available radio spectrum they can come up with," Reyer said.

Although radar will pick up any moving object, lidar works better with easily reflectable surfaces. Dark colors soak in light.

"It makes it more difficult to obtain a reading," Reyer said.

A few car painters, however, said they have never heard of black cars blocking laser speed guns completely.

"As far as I know, it doesn't help," said Miracle Auto Painting and Body car painter Jeff Jacobson, who has been painting automobiles for 30 years.

Reyer's company sells a special coating that he said can reduce laser sensitivity by up to 75 percent, he said.

A few car accessory companies have come up with license plate holders that diffuse laser guns. What those companies don't say is that a laser can point to any other portion of a car for an accurate reading.

Overall, drivers who speed every day are going to get caught sooner or later, police say.

"We give people with radar and lidar detectors tickets all the time," Creel said.

Reyer agreed that there is no secret strategy to avoid all tickets.

"The only foolproof way is not to speed," he said. "The bottom line is paying attention while you are driving."


Alameda County Sheriff: Instant-on radar

California Highway Patrol: Instant-on radar and lidar

Danville: Instant-on radar and lidar

Dublin: Instant-on radar, radar and lidar

Livermore: Instant-on radar and lidar

Pleasanton: Radar

San Ramon: Radar and lidar

Tracy: Radar