New Ban on Radar Detectors Draws Widespread Support

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The Federal Highway Administration will start cracking down this month on most truckers and bus drivers who use radar detectors. Beginning Jan. 20, the practice will violate a new federal law.

Some major Washington lobbies that concern themselves with safety are pleased, saying the statute will cut down on speeders who have tried to evade police radar with impunity. But the law will not affect private motorists because the highway administration only regulates commercial vehicles. And studies show that very few passenger cars use them, anyway.

The new prohibition against use of radar detectors will only apply to trucks and buses in interstate commerce--trucks weighing 10,000 pounds or more and buses carrying at least 16 passengers.


Stan Hamilton of the highway administration says the law will have particular relevance to California, which has more trucks than most states but has no state regulation against radar detectors. Virginia and the District of Columbia already outlaw the detectors for all motorists, and New York prohibits them in most commercial vehicles. Connecticut last year dropped its ban.

Radar detectors are compact electronic boxes, some as small as a pack of cigarettes, that act as radio-frequency receivers to pick up signals emitted by police radar.

Clipped onto a sun visor or a special windshield bracket, they are designed to alert vehicles to “speed traps” by signaling drivers when radar is being beamed at them.

Hamilton says the highway administration has established fines of $500 to $1,000 per infraction but that enforcement of the law will be borne chiefly by the states. Jim Faria, a radar expert for the California Highway Patrol, believes the law may help cut down on speeding trucks, although he is dubious about the value of radar detectors anyway.

“Most of them are useless,” Faria said in an interview. “The radar equipment we use in California does not transmit a signal continuously. We put it on just to confirm a speed we have established visually, and by that time it’s too late for the driver to be warned.”

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) wrote the law banning radar detectors in commercial vehicles into the 1992 appropriation bill for the Department of Transportation after getting a majority in Congress to agree with him.


“There’s no reason to have these devices except to evade the law,” Lautenberg said. “Our nation’s highways are going to be much safer because truckers are going to slow down without radar detectors. The lives we save will be the payoff.”

Peter Rogoff, an aide to Lautenberg, said the only real opposition to the legislation came from radar-detector manufacturers and some independent haulers who claim the law is an example of over-regulation.

“We think it is a wholesale waste of time and effort on the part of government,” said Todd Spencer, a spokesman for the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Assn., which represents 21,000 truckers who operate 35,000 trucks.

“Radar detectors are not factors in highway safety or highway accidents,” Spencer said. “They have never been shown to be, and no legitimate data exist to show a relationship between radar detectors and accidents.”

However, an impressive list of safety experts has endorsed the new law on grounds that large trucks account for a disproportionate share of fatal highway accidents, with excessive speed the principal cause. These advocates include the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the American Trucking Assn., the American Automobile Assn., the National Safety Council and the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police.

Insurance Institute studies have shown that truckers who use radar detectors are far more likely to exceed 70 m.p.h. than other truckers. As many as 40% of all tractor-trailers use the detectors, with the number rising to nearly 50% of trucks that carry hazardous materials, according to institute officials. Yet only 4% of passenger cars use them, the studies showed.


The trucking association, which represents 40,000 trucking companies, also said it is pleased with the regulation. Said John Doyle, an association spokesman: “There’s one reason to use a radar detector: to break the law. You’ll hear many other excuses, but none valid.”