Radar Arms Race: Obvious solutions are not always best
Laser jammers, in combination with good detection, equate to Romulan cloaking devices
Ah, as I enjoy my summer here in the Rockies, I thought I’d extend the informatics definition to include the ongoing arms race between the traffic enforcement branch of law enforcement and the countermeasures taken by those of us who speed.
My relationship with the traffic enforcement branch of the police has been on shaky ground since an early age. My first exposure to high-speed pursuit came when I was about 10 years old, and my brother Richard, then 15, decided to hotwire my mother’s car. Either as part of his misguided interpretation of “responsibility” as a babysitter, or just to shut me up, he plunked me down in the back seat of the car. In front, Richard was at the wheel, and his friend, John, was riding shotgun. Traveling south somewhere along Nichols Road, Richard somehow attracted the attention of the local police, who set their lights ablaze and started following us. Richard was already a skilled driver, despite the two blemishes on his record stemming from totaling out my oldest brother’s car in a head-on collision on US 131, and a less severe wreck involving another of my mother’s cars.
The police were hot on our tail that night, but not yet close enough to read our license plate, and Richard didn’t intend to let them close the gap. We flew across Ravine Road, and Richard began to cackle. Before I continue, I think it’s important to mention that Richard was once described by a mutual friend as “someone who feeds off the fear of the passengers in his car.” Indeed, one day when I was in my early twenties, I received a call from Richard requesting I come bail him out of jail.
“What did you do?”
“They don’t jail people for speeding,” I corrected.
“They do for 140 in a 55.”
Returning to our story, Richard glanced in his rearview mirror, and saw the flashing lights dropping off the pace ever-so-slightly.
“Don’t worry, I have them.”
“What do you mean, ‘you have them’? They’ll be on us in 10 seconds!’” John was sweating profusely, and likely wondering what would be on the menu for breakfast the next morning at the county jail.
“We’ll see,” was Richard’s reply. He jerked the car left, tires smoking, onto Stolk Drive. As he floored it, Jim looked at the Dead End sign.
“Nice work. Now what?”
Richard’s malevolent look suggested he had a plan, and we were about to find out what it was. He aimed the car between two houses at the end of the cul-de-sac just as the police made the turn onto Stolk behind us. He shot between the driveways of the two homes, and aimed the car toward a steep hill. The hill fell off at an impossibly steep angle, and Richard downshifted as he bumped the car down to Ravine Road, made a right turn, and headed toward Drake Road. We all looked up the hill, and the police evidently didn’t want to risk the same ski jump descent, and assumed were likely doubling back to Nichols Road. This was a tactical error, as Richard was long gone before they ever found the long way back down to Ravine Road.
Thus educated, my own sordid driving history with the traffic cops began while I was still holding my learner’s permit at 15, and, with my mom in the passenger seat, gunned her car to run a red light in front of Kalamazoo Central High School, astonishing her, and the cop sitting perpendicular to my line of travel. As a juvenile on a learner’s permit, I had to appear in traffic court to explain to the judge why I chose to drive so recklessly before I even had a real license.
Richard had inadvertently buffered my numerous transgressions by simply being so incredibly crazy behind the wheel, that the liberties I took with the law seemed pale by comparison. He once stood up on the driver’s seat to yell at friends behind him through my mom’s moon roof when he was 17. Unfortunately, the car swerved between two parallel parked cars, missing both, and he managed to wipe out three parked cars as he glanced off them from the sidewalk side. Not to be outdone, he took my oldest brother’s brand new MG Midget and ran it up and down the sand dunes of Lake Michigan, and blew the engine. One time, my mom received a call Kalamazoo Central High School to say that Richard had been kicked out of school for doing wheelies in the parking lot.
His coup de grâce came one Saturday night. A friend dropped him off at my parent’s house, and Richard had a six-inch line of stitches on his head. He told my dad that his car was wrecked outside of town near Paw Paw. My dad and I drove out there Sunday morning to find the work crews still trying to extract it from between two trees. The car looked as though a giant had picked it up and squashed it from both ends, while twisting it as well. The wreck made the local papers, with the headline, “teen driver escapes crash with minor injuries.” Indeed, the driver’s door was now almost touching the gear shift, and it was at that point it became apparent Richard had nine lives.
My arms race started by purchasing a Fuzzbuster in the 1970s. The bricklike black box had a single white light front and center, and a squelch control knob to reduce sensitivity to competing signals. And competing signals abounded; since nearly all police radar was on the “X band,” every supermarket door triggered the unit in a monotonous stream of false alarms. Still, the Fuzzbuster saved me thousands in tickets for a few years.
The police responded with K band radar, offered in the “instant on” format, meaning rather than bathing the oncoming vehicle in radar waves, allowing the speeder to slow down a mile before the police can visually associate the 90 MPH reading with a specific car, they could wait and fire the beam when a car was upon them. More devastating to lead-footed drivers such as I, was the so-called “moving radar,” meaning the unit could be installed in a police vehicle. Two beams emanated from the unit, one to calculate the police car’s velocity, one to track the victim, ah, scofflaw (more on that later).
So, several manufacturers of radar detectors started incorporating X and K bands into their detection criteria. And then the law enforcement personal added the Ka band to their repertoire, guess what came next? Ka band detectors.
Well, some states decided to cut off the arms race at the source. Laws banning radar detectors have been enacted in Virginia and D.C. They can’t be used by vehicles over 10,000 pounds in New York, or over 18,000 pounds anywhere else, though I suspect truckers still use CB radios to circumvent enforcement.
But if the detectors are illegal, how do you catch people using them? By using radar detector detectors of course. Police can detect the frequencies emitted by the superheterodyne technology onboard radar detectors. In those states where radar detectors are illegal, the police radar units will indicate whether drivers have detectors.
Radar detector manufacturers started providing, are you ready? Radar detector detector detectors. This circuitry detects radar detector detectors, and shuts down the superhterodyne circuitry so the detectors cannot be detected.
Enter LIDAR, or as we aspiring Helio Castroneves refer to them, laser guns. Cops have not yet followed the technological curve to place these onboard moving vehicles, but nab hundreds of thousands of speeders a year by just waiting for them, sighting them in the optical scope of the device, and firing on the oncoming vehicle. Since all laser guns are “instant on” and highly focused, they can single out vehicles at a considerable distance for targeting. But detector manufacturers have included LIDAR detection in most modern detectors in the past decade.
Not to plug specific manufacturers, but I researched many brands of detectors and decided on the state-of-the art (for the moment) Passport 9500ix. With GPS functionality, it can remember where false signals have been found, and from a regularly updated database, can warn you of common speed trap locations and so-called photo radar or “red light camera” locations. I was nabbed by one of the latter in Greensborough, NC, years before owning the device. The unit also detects common radar frequencies so far away that you can speed for quite a few moments before hitting the brakes. It also does a wonderful job at catching the light scatter from LIDAR units.
So, the arms race ends there? Not a chance, but the latest blows struck by the speeder community are so drastic, so effective, the only defense law enforcement has against them is the gavel.
What if you could jam police radar and lasers?
Well, the Scorpion Ultimate Ka Radar Jammer did just that. When police aimed their Ka guns at cars equipped with the Scorpion, all they received was scrambled garbage. To no one’s surprise, and with a little help of the FCC, Scorpion units were legislated out of business. You can find the odd one on the Internet for a lot of money, but using them is a felony, and it seems not worth the risk.
But federal laws regarding unauthorized use of radio frequencies, the heart of the ban on the Scorpion, do not apply to the light spectrum, so laser jammers have found the market, and although about 10 states ban them (including my beloved Colorado), they are legal elsewhere, and very effective. In combination with a good radar detector, a laser jammer is the equivalent of the Romulan cloaking device of Star Trek fame.
Of course, I realize there are readers in the audience who say, “you should be busted if you speed. Why are you above the law?”
Ah, that’s an interesting question, and the answer is not as black and white as it seems.
Let’s first talk about speed traps. Law enforcement personnel despise the term. The official stance from the law enforcement community is that speeders are lawbreakers, they must be slowed down or taken off the road as a matter of public safety.
Or better stated; speed enforcement is a deterrent. Really?
If you want to deter speeding, do what they do in Florida along I-95 between Jacksonville and Melborne: park empty police cars in the median to frighten drivers to hit the brakes. But, in Colorado, police hide on overpasses, behind bushes, even on private property to nab speeders. Moreover, in Colorado, there are a fleet of SUVs and sportier cars, such as the Dodge Magnum, all totally undercover. Where is the deterrent factor when you hide your colors? When an unmarked car busts a speeder, they deter one person, but when a car or motorcycle cop is parked along the road in plain site, they slow down hundreds of cars.
I agree that reckless speeders, or even mild speeders who are impaired, need to be expunged from the roads, but please don’t sell me that Draconian enforcement is about deterring speeding; it’s all about revenue. In these days when municipal budgets are suffering from reduced tax revenues because of the recession, enforcement of speeding laws has now narrowed from the “we won’t touch you up to 9 MPH over” unwritten agreement, formerly accepted almost everywhere, to people getting popped for 1 MPH over the limit.
To be fair, the radar detector people promote their devices as tools for reminding people to check the speed limit, not as a tool for evading tickets (a statement hotly contested by law enforcement). Honestly, I often let my mind drift while driving (thanks a lot XM for contributing to my ADD), and when my detector blares at me, I instinctively hit the brakes, even though I might not even be over the speed limit. In my younger days, I confessed to being a habitual and profound speeder, however skillful, but a bit excessive. Now, I just want to avoid the penchant-for-tax-recovery doctrine of the Colorado police.
Okay, I have been in the reckless category before. Bombing down a rural road near my neighborhood, I managed to double the speed limit and the radar cop who got me (my detector was not on) was not sporting a sense of humor.
“Do you know how fast you were going?”
“I’m not sure, but the speed bumps are fun to hit at 70 MPH or so, I try to get big air with all four wheels.”
That landed me in court where I plea bargained down to two points for illegal lane change.
What did Sammy Hagar sing? “I can’t drive 55”? Well, I can, but it’s usually in a 25 MPH zone. But these days, transgressions are in the 5 to 10 MPH range.
Where does the arms race end? Well, it hasn’t even slowed since that first, one-eyed Fuzzbuster I had back in the 70s, at least not in the “us versus them” vein. Perhaps the radar wars serve as an allegorical reference to the pathways we see elsewhere in the informatics field.
LIMS and related applications are an order of magnitude more functional than they were even 10 years ago, and I suspect will be another order of magnitude stronger in the next five years. And this is a good thing. Cancer, HIV and untold other biological disasters will only be beaten back if informatics technology continues to evolve, and we don’t legislate into oblivion the incentives large pharma and biotech companies have for investing in their own research rather than simply assimilating smaller companies who have wandered to the end of the pier with neat little boutique drugs.
So, I’m lucky to have survived my lead-footed driving habits of yesteryear, and many of my fond memories of my late brother Richard involve his insane exploits, of which only a few of the PG-13 versions I’ve related to you today. Maybe riding around in stolen cars isn’t a recommended curricular element for raising kids, but at least it opened my eyes to the notion that the most obvious solutions are not always the best.
Randy Hice is Director, Strategic Consulting at STARLIMS. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.