Friday, August 28, 2009

Red Light Camera Detectors Reviewed

Cheetah GPS Mirror, Navalert, Whistler RLC-100 and Cheetah C100 red light camera detector models
Talk about irony: The U.S.
government— the world's biggest promoter of red light and speed cameras—has unwittingly become instrumental in helping motorists to avoid these pestilential devices. So the next time you're whining about paying taxes, give thanks that Uncle Sam spent about a jillion of our taxpayer dollars to develop the Global Positioning System (GPS).

First used to help guide cruise missiles through Iraqi doorways while also keep
ing our troops from marching endlessly in circles, GPS technology has become indispensible for directionally-challenged men. Now red light camera detectors also benefit from the orbiting array of GPS satellites.

These new detectors come in two flavors: combination radar/laser detectors with integral GPS, and stand-alone models that warn only of red light cameras. Most of the latter are private-label British imports, not a big surprise as England has been awash in cameras for years.

Unlike with a combination detector, if you blunder into the microwave beam of a photo radar unit (a mobile speed camera like the Gatso, Multanova and Redflex), one of these red light camera detectors won't make a peep. It actually detects nothing; it merely alerts when it arrives at a set of programmed GPS coordinates. To handle radar, of the photo variety and others, you'll need one of the best radar detector models, one with extreme K- and Ka-band sensitivity. (Don't get depressed, but I've found only a handful of radar detectors that can deliver long-range protection against the radar speed van.)

For some drivers the combination radar/laser/speed camera detector is a more useful tool. The first of these was sold briefly by Uniden in 2002 but disappeared almost immediately. I tested one and tried hard to like it, but the user interface was too clumsy to be useful.

Escort was the first to get it right, introducing the
well-received Escort Passport 9500i and its upmarket sibling, the Escort Passport 9500ix, along with the Passport 9500ci custom-installed remote model. Corporate cousin BEL (Beltronics) offers the slightly less expensive dash-mount model, the GX 65. Cobra also has two GPS-enabled models, the dash-mount XRS 9960G (a renamed XRS 9950 model) I've reviewed earlier, and a hybrid, windshield-mounted remote system, the XRS R10G (a renamed XRS R9G model), also the subject of an earlier review.

But the least expensive of these combination units is $275, and many drivers already
have a radar detector. This accounts for the increasing popularity of stand-alone red light camera deteThe Whistler RLC-100 red light camera detector can be linked to a Valentine One (V1) radar detector, giving complete protection.ctors. One model I tested, the Whistler RLC-100 (about $100 street price), offers adapter power cables that allow it to be linked to a radar detector, including high-end models from BEL (Beltronics) and Escort, and the Valentine One (V1). This frees up one power point and helps to reduce dashboard clutter. You've still got two pieces of gear competing for windshield or dashtop real estate, but it's an improvement.

I tested the first red light camera detector when it arrived stateside in late 2001. By the summer of 2009 it had been joined by three more stand-alone models of red light camera detector. And I hadn't even finished evaluating these before two others, the Cobra Electronics SL-3 and the Cheetah C50 entered the fray. It took several months of side-by-side comparison to figure out which of these works the best, and if you're planning to start packing red light camera protection, my new reviews may save you some time and money. Hint: the most expensive red light camera detectors aren't necessarily the best at keeping you from getting a ticket.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hauling Cats

I was in Houston this spring for a seminar and was offered two 12-week-old kittens by a friend. Okay, why not, I figured? My last cat, Max, died at age 15 in 2007 and I'd been pet-less since, for the first time in memory.

My friends in Houston promised to air-mail the felines to me. Okay, air-freight them. But they neglected to research the issue and simply showed up at Continental’s air freight counter, thinkin
g they could chuck them aboard the next flight heading west. Wrong. With no vet’s certificate of good health, no flying.

This dragged on until I resolved to drive there and return with the cats. The journ
ey may be slower, but it's far safer for the animal than air freight.

I speak from experience: Northwest Airlines lost my favorite cat, Fred, and sent him flying around the nation for two days in the belly of a Boeing 747. He lived for a month and then dropped dead at age three from a stress-induced aneurysm.

In small-claims court a Northwest Airlines representative dismissed my friend's death as a crass ploy on my part to generate a story. I won $50 in damages, the airline's maximum liability. (The Northwest Airlines guy chided me for failing to purchase insurance. They can kill a pet with almost no consequences although they're liable for much higher damages for lost luggage.)
Not surprisingly, I'm of the opinion that air-freighting animals is to be avoided if possible. Doing so in the Arizona summertime might be considered cruel.

I reluctantly chose my police-package Ford Expedition for the trip, mainly because I anticipated that the cats would be screaming for the entire journey. And the Ford is big enough that with them in the rear cargo area, it would be akin to tolerating cats howling from two blocks away, something I could live with if I absolutely had to. By contrast, using a sedan would put their cat carrier in the passenger compartment. Way too close.

Like a proper 21st century, computer-savvy male, rather than dusting off the atlas to check road miles to
Houston, I used Google. And Google assured me that it was barely over 1,000 miles. I Craig Peterson and the Cannonball Ford at La Carrera Classic road race in Ensenada, Mexicohadn’t driven from AZ to Houston since my star-crossed trip to Baja, Mexico's La Carrera Classic II road race in the Cannonball Ford. (Car and Driver chronicled my 1988 race--and the fabled car's ignominious end--in "Cheating Death in the Desert". I'm still trying to live it down.)

I seemed to recall the distance as being somewhat longer than Google's number—it’s nearly 850 miles from Hous
ton just to the New Mexico state line—but it’d been awhile and hey, Google knows best. But on the trip to Houston, I watched the trip odometer roll past 800 and I was still far to the west of San Antonio, which I knew to be at least 200 miles from Houston. I spent the night in bucolic Ozona (yes, it’s on the map, barely) and drove into Houston the next afternoon. It was 1,250 miles and after fighting gale-force crosswinds for nearly the entire trip, I was numb with fatigue.

I couldn’t bear the thought of returning the next day so I delayed my plans by 24 hours and chilled with friends. Then I loaded the cats at 6 a.m. and headed west. They stayed eerily silent, so quiet that I was b
eginning to think they’d both expired of stress-related complications. But every four hours when I stopped to pump $90 worth of 91-octane to refill the 30-gallon tank, I peeked in to see if they were breathing. And they were.

After 14 hours I stopped briefly in Tucson and let them out of their carrier for a snack and water. This elicited some stares: it's uncommon to see cats scurrying around inside a marked police vehicle. Then back inside and we hustled along the final 150 miles, arriving home not long after dark. During the 16-hour trip I burned 105 gallons of fuel, ate 3.5 pounds of trail mix and dodged eight radar ambushes. The cats were suitably impressed.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why Ka-band is a Headache for Radar Detectors

MPH BEE III Ka-band radar gun with POP mode is one that doesn't use the 35.5 GHz frequency.

If you drive with a radar detector that digitally displays the radar gun's frequency, you may have noticed that one of the three Ka-band frequencies is particularly hard to detect.

Sitting at the very top of the super-wide Ka-band radar spectrum, 35.5 Gigahertz (GHz) is the toughest. There's a lot of these radars trolling the highways. Two of the four domestic radar manufacturers adopted 35.5 GHz and today there's about a 50-50 chance that when you encounter Ka-band radar, it will be one theirs.

The use of 35.5 GHz in traffic radar wasn't accidental. It was chosen by someone I've known for many years. I'll refer to him here only as Steve. No last names; he shuns publicity. Steve once confided that he knew this frequency would be a headache for radar detectors. And he was right.

Ka band runs from 33.4 GHz to 36.0 GHz, some 2,600 megahertz wide. In comparison, K band is 200 megahertz wide and X band only 50. Steve could have chosen any slice of that Ka-band real estate, and he purposely grabbed the highest available. He knew that countering it would require superior engineering and more-expensive components, making for a pricey radar detector.

To illustrate the conundrum this frequency poses to detectors, visualize standing before a trio of identical, half-mile-long railroad tunnels. The left tunnel represents 33.8 GHz; to the right is 35.5. In the center is 34.7 GHz.

Your job is to spot an approaching train and warn others. (No, you can't rely on your auditory senses; this is a government job. You're wearing OSHA-approved hearing protection.)

The train will be traveling at 300 mph (pretty fast for Amtrak but hey, it's a Mag-Lev) and there's an equal chance it can emerge from any of the three tunnels. Taking up station in front of the center tunnel might seem sensible but by standing there, you can't see far enough into the other two. So you sprint back and forth between the three tunnels, conscientiously keeping watch on each. It's exhausting work, for there's a very real risk that a train in one tunnel will get the drop on you while you're busy peering into another.

This illustrates the task facing a radar detector on Ka band. For the past decade few manufacturers have even attempted to monitor all three frequencies with equal facility. Most chose the midpoint, 34.7 GHz, and accepted a steep performance roll-off on both sides. This practice has been nearly universal among detectors priced under $200.

This has changed recently. For the first time, mass-marketers Cobra Electronics and Whistler offer several attractively-priced models with class-competitive Ka-band performance, including against that elusive 35.5 GHz frequency.

I recently tested several models from each manufacturer, plus a BEL (Beltronics) Vector 955, the perennial class leader. Reviews of these radar detectors and the test results are on