U.S. Acts to Ban Radar Detectors in Big Trucks
By MARTIN TOLCHIN
Published: November 12, 1993
The Transportation Department has recommended to the White House final regulations that would prohibit radar detectors in 2.5 million big commercial trucks that roar along the nation's roads.
The ban, which would apply to all trucks weighing more than 18,000 pounds, requires only the approval of the White House Office of Management and Budget before taking effect. That approval is expected, and the ban could be in effect by the end of the year.
The regulation is aimed at curbing safety threats posed by the drivers of big rigs who routinely break highway speed limits but evade the efforts of state troopers through the use of radar detectors mounted in their cabs.
The new regulations, sent to the White House last month without public notice, would not apply to cars. One reason is substantive: automobiles are considered far less dangerous than huge speeding tractor-trailers. But another is clearly political: nearly everyone who votes drives a car, at least from time to time, and many drive it faster than the law allows.
Only the District of Columbia and New York, Illinois and Virginia currently prohibit the use of radar detectors, in cars as well as trucks.
The Federal ban is a response to a 1991 Congressional directive that required the Transportation Department to propose such rules by January 1992. The department did issue a proposal then. But the Bush White House opposed the approach, on the ground that enforcement of speed limits was a state concern, not a Federal one. So, after a period of public comment that ended in May 1992, nothing was done to make the rules final.
The ban is opposed by small, independent owner-operators of trucks, many of whom try to compete against big trucking companies through quicker delivery of goods, a goal that frequently means speeding. 'Unacceptable,' Senator Says
It is supported by a coalition of eight insurance, police, automobile, safety and big trucking groups, as well as Federal officials who contend that radar detectors serve only one purpose: to break traffic laws.
"It's unacceptable to have devices designed to thwart the law," said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, the New Jersey Democrat who heads the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and who was a chief sponsor of the 1991 directive. "I want to get rid of these things."
Congress's mandate sprang from a petition in 1990 by the eight members of the anti-detector coalition: the American Automobile Association, the American Trucking Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Safety Council, Public Citizen, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and the National Association of Governors' Highway Safety Representatives.
That petition, filed with the Federal Highway Administration, contended that radar detectors led to speeding, that tractor-trailer drivers used detectors more frequently than drivers of any other vehicles and that truck drivers with radar detectors were far more likely to speed than were truck drivers without them.
But conclusive evidence tying the use of radar detectors to any increased risk of road accidents is scarce and, the Federal Highway Administration acknowledges, may not exist at all.
In a 1988 study, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that radar detectors "can have a negative impact on speed enforcement." But the agency warned against "definitive conclusions about the larger issue of the relationship between detectors and traffic safety."
This week a House subcommittee approved a measure that would require the Transportation Department to fill in the gaps. The measure would authorize a study aimed at determining whether there was a correlation between detector use and accidents, whether radar technology could be used to enhance safety and whether this technology could be applied to a new generation of "smart cars" now on Detroit's drawing boards.
Correction: November 13, 1993, Saturday
An article yesterday about the Transportation Department's proposal to ban radar detectors on 2.5 million big trucks misstated the laws of Illinois and New York. In both states, radar detectors are illegal in commercial trucks weighing more than 18,000 pounds but are legal in cars.