Thursday, March 08, 2018

Wronged by Radar

Radar merely displays a speed, leaving it up to the officer to figure out which vehicle it's looking at. Not infrequently, the officer gets it wrong.
In Florida an elderly man was outraged when he was pulled over by a Florida Highway Patrol trooper and ticketed for driving 77 mph in a 65 mph zone. On I-80 in Wyoming a driver was cited by a trooper for 91 mph in a 75 mph zone. A Porsche driver was stopped by a California Highway Patrol trooper and ticketed for driving 15 mph over the limit.

All three were innocent: the officer was wrong in every case. This is hardly unusual and plenty of innocent drivers get speeding tickets from radar-equipped cops.

After speaking with the drivers and analyzing the evidence, in each case it was apparent that the officer either was clueless about radar operation, failed to follow procedure or wrongly identified the offending vehicle.

Mistakes are made because traffic radar merely displays a number, leaving it up to the officer to determine which target is producing the speed.

When used in Moving Mode, the radar also shows the cruiser's speed, called Patrol Speed. And in the Fastest Speed mode used by these officers, a third speed is displayed, that of the fastest target within range. This is a lot of real-time information for the officer to be monitoring.

Moving-mode radar can get confused, especially in traffic. For this reason, officers are trained to carry out a multi-step process to verify that the radar is working correctly and they've identified which speed is being generated by which vehicle, something called tracking history.

To establish tracking history the officer must:
  • Estimate the target's speed

  • Compare radar patrol speed—the cruiser's—to the speedometer and verify that the two match

  • Observe radar target speed

  • Verify that target speed approximates the visual estimate

  • Verify that the radar's Audio Doppler conforms to the visual speed estimate

  • Observe target vehicle and target speed for a few seconds, making sure they remain relatively constant
All three troopers were using Stalker DSR radar, an excellent unit with phenomenal range. One of its unique features is full-time Fastest Speed mode. This allows it to continuously display the speed of the strongest target and also the fastest target.

Stalker DSR 2X sibling of the DSR can monitor twice as many targets simultaneously. Green 51 mph is Patrol Speed; 36 mph speed (upper left) is the approaching minivan at left. The 54 mph Fastest speed is from the car behind the minivan. 

The strongest target, the one returning the strongest reflected signal, is usually the closest vehicle.  But not always. For example, the radar might clock an 18-wheeler 800 feet away while ignoring a bite-sized Ford Focus that's much closer. It will begin reading the Ford's speed only when it has closed to nearly point-blank range.

In the Florida case, I concluded that the 77 mph target was a big rig far behind the Cadillac driven by the retiree. My guess is that the trooper hit the Transmit button, saw a 77 mph Fastest speed appear and assumed it was the closest vehicle, the Caddy, which she pulled over.

She may have been unaware that her radar was capable of clocking an 18-wheeler a mile or more away. Regardless, if she'd have taken her time and followed procedure, the wrong guy wouldn't have been ticketed.

In analyzing the rear-camera footage from the Wyoming trooper's in-car video system, the Dodge clearly wasn't gaining on the cruiser; if anything, it was falling back.

The driver confirmed that he'd spotted the marked Wyoming Highway Patrol Ford and lifted from the gas, the typical reaction. He said the trooper had abruptly accelerated, passing a tractor-trailer in the right lane, and continued for about a quarter-mile. Then the Ford pulled onto the shoulder and when he passed by, fell in behind and lit him up.

In the video, no vehicle other than the defendant's slowing Dodge could be seen for at least half a mile behind the cruiser.

That left two potential sources for the 91 mph on the ticket. Although none was visible in the video, it's conceivable the radar was looking at an 18-wheeler nearly back over the horizon. On the eastern prairies of Wyoming, 91-mph big rigs aren't uncommon.  

Wyoming Highway Patrol cruiser's rear video camera captures the likely source of a 91 mph speed wrongly attributed to an innocent Dodge driver.

But the video offered a more likely explanation: The 91 mph violation speed was probably generated by the spinning wheels of the 18-wheeler the trooper was passing at the moment. If he'd been more accurate in estimating the speed of the Dodge, he'd have noticed that he and the radar were looking at different vehicles. But it's tough to estimate speeds by squinting into a rear-view mirror.

And in the California case, the rookie trooper testified that the distant Porsche he cited had definitely produced the 80 mph Fastest speed, not the car that was barely 200 feet away from his CHP cruiser. He was wrong, but the judge still found the guy guilty.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Junk Radar-Fighters

False alarms from radar-controlled door openers today are a minor irritation compared to those caused by millions of vehicles with lane-change warning systems.
For the driver using a radar detector, false alarms used to be merely an irritation; today they're a plague. A vast array of equipment now shares K band with police radar, cluttering the airwaves with microwave energy.

For example, commercial automatic door openers use radar. Drive within a quarter mile of a Walmart and expect an alert. More nuisance signals have arrived as state transportation departments install traffic-sensing radar (TSR) to monitor traffic flow and volume. 

A much bigger problem is Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) technology. These lane-change warning systems sense an adjacent vehicle and warn when a lane-change maneuver is dangerous. Most use—you guessed it—K-band radar.

Traffic-sensing radar watches a freeway
Radar speed signs along roads show your speed and scold when you're over the limit. These gadgets also use K band and set off a detector each time one is passed. The challenge today is how to filter out all the junk without missing genuine radar buried in the noise.

The best hope to date is a high-end detector with GPS. Door openers don't change locations and since the GPS radar detector is always aware of its location, it can lock out door openers by storing their frequency and coordinates in a database. Next time you roll past, it stays quiet.

With GPS the detector can also warn of red light and speed cameras. Drivers in the 22 states using cameras likely will find this helpful.

If there's a downside to GPS-enabled detectors it's cost. Escort had this market to itself for years and priced its wares accordingly, from $500 to over $3,500.

But some lower-priced newcomers have joined the fray. And in our recent test, some of them easily outperformed the new Escort Redline EX ($599). 

For the first time, drivers looking for a detector able to filter out junk radar signals have some lower-priced options. View the test results.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Laser Jammer Woes

I spoke recently with a senior installer at a Texas BMW dealer who told me that he installs laser jammers behind bumper covers. Said he's been doing this for years and scoffed at the notion that without a view of the road, a laser jammer is useless

This isn't uncommon. Few installers understand the differences between lidar and radar technology. Many assume that a laser beam passes easily through plastic, just like microwave radar.

Laser jammer kits include bubble levels and directions for alignment, both frequently ignored. Jammer alignment is critical since the pinpoint light beam is dueling with a similar pinpoint beam transmitted by the laser gun. If the jammer can't spot the incoming laser beam, it does nothing.

But I routinely see installers aim laser jammers into the ground; many splay the jammers toward the outside, like they're adjusting the beams of driving lights.

The labor required for a proper installation is considerable. I've spent two days installing front and rear jammers on a Porsche 911 Turbo, for example.

Porsche 911 Turbo, an installer's nightmare

The rear-engine Porsche is a phenomenally difficult car to work on, requiring removal of the battery, trunk liner, spare tire, bumper covers, wheel well liners and rear interior trim. That's merely to gain access.

Routing wires through a packed engine compartment into the interior is an art form. So is protecting everything from exhaust plumbing that can glow red-hot at times.

Regardless, plenty of folks spend big bucks on hardware and then shop around for the lowest bid on installation.

And I have yet to see an installer road-test a finished system with a speed laser. No surprise considering that $3000 police lasers can't be found on the shelf at the local Walmart.

Small wonder that many jammer-equipped cars prove to be no match for laser-toting cops.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Escort Max Ci 360 Coming Soon

Escort Max Ci
Escort is expected to debut a new custom-installed (remote) radar detector this month. Called the Max Ci, it will break new ground in pricing. The base version with two front laser jammers (shifters) will retail for $2,995. 

With the addition of a rear radar antenna ($499) it becomes the Max Ci 360. The rear radar antenna allows the Max Ci to indicate the direction of incoming radar signals, a feature introduced on the Max 360.

Max Ci features:
  • Front and rear laser jammers
  • Four-color OLED display
  • Updateable IVT filter to reduce false alarms from Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) radar and adaptive cruise control (ACC) lasers
  • GPS
  • Built-in Bluetooth for linking to the Escort Live app
  • RDD (Radar Detector-Detector)-undetectable
It's claimed to be an all-new design that shares little with the Escort Passport 9500ci.  Like its forebear, the radar antenna is to retain dual forward-facing horns and low-noise amplifiers (LNA).

Escort Max 360 has a single front/rear antenna (above). The Max Ci 360 will use two antenna, one facing forward, the other pointing rearward. Each antenna module incorporates twin forward-facing radar antennae (horns).
Integral Bluetooth will let the Max Ci link to the Escort Live app without the need for an interface module.

Like the 9500ci a USB port is expected to be provided, allowing firmware revisions and updates to the Defender red light camera database.

The Max Ci/Ci 360 will be built on a new platform dubbed M7R and incorporating much of the Max 360 design architecture.  The rear antenna will be based on the 9500ci's front antenna.

Look for the Max Ci to arrive in late March 2017.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Google Self-Driving Car Triggers Laser Detectors

Google (Waymo) self-driving Lexus test car in Mesa, AZ

Driving in Phoenix recently my Escort Passport 9500ci began shrieking a laser warning. Especially on urban freeways, alerts like this aren't uncommon, often triggered by the laser-based active cruise control (ACC) system in a nearby vehicle. (Lexus and other Japanese makes are big offenders.)

But normally the alerts stop after a few seconds. This one went on forever.  After 30 seconds or so I spotted a possible suspect in the mirrors. It was a Lexus, alright, an RX 350. But this one was festooned with sensors sprouting from the fenders and roof, capped by a central, smoked-plastic dome the size of a football helmet.

I changed lanes, using a Ford Super Duty pickup as a shield. The Escort went silent. Another lane change brought the Lexus into view again. Instantly the Escort alerted. The source identified, I backed off to get a closer look.

It wore California plates and a discrete door decal reading "Waymo", one of a fleet of Google self-driving cars being tested in Arizona.

When these cars enter production, it's a safe bet that laser (lidar) detectors everywhere will react similarly. To Uber self-driving cars as well, at least if Uber continues to use the same lidar system. That issue will be decided by the courts, given that Google/Waymo is suing Uber, alleging that Uber, um, borrowed the patented technology.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Are Traffic Deaths Really Up?

A headline in the Feb. 16, 2017 New York Times read "U.S. Traffic Deaths Rise for a Second Straight Year".

In quoting the National Safety Council, the source of this grim claim, writer Neal E. Boudette wrote: "For the first time since 2007, more than 40,000 were killed in crashes last year, a safety group estimated, pointing to lax law enforcement as a factor."

The story goes on to say that "...government officials and safety advocates contend... the increase in deaths has been caused by more lenient enforcement of seatbelt, drunken driving and speeding regulations by authorities and a reluctance by lawmakers to pass more restrictive measures."

The New York Times wasn't alone in sounding the alarm. Dozens of its media contemporaries weighed in with similar stories. And without exception, they all got it wrong.

For starters, that 40,000-fatality claim by the NSC was merely a guess. The fatality numbers for 2016 won't be available until the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency issues its report later in 2017.

There are other problems behind that headline-grabbing number. For example, the National Safety Council counts traffic deaths that occur within a year of the accident and also includes accidents that occur off public roads.

In contrast, NHTSA counts only  traffic deaths on public roads and which occur within 30 days of the accident.

With these expanded criteria, the NSC's fatality numbers are larger and less accurate than those from NHTSA. Buried on its website the NSC admits as much: "National Safety Council figures are not comparable to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures."

The National Safety Council routinely issues the same sky-is-falling press release every year.  A February 17, 2016 NSC press release screamed "Motor Vehicle Deaths Increase by Largest Percent in 50 Years".

"Preliminary estimates from the National Safety Council indicate motor vehicle deaths were 8% higher in 2015 than they were in 2014 - the largest year-over-year percent increase in 50 years," the release read.

"The Council estimates 38,300 people were killed on U.S. roads, and 4.4 million were seriously injured, meaning 2015 likely was the deadliest driving year since 2008".

Wrong again. NHTSA reported 35,092 fatalities for 2015, 9.1 percent lower than the NSC's shrill prediction.

To compare year-to-year changes the death rate is the critical number. It's expressed in fatalities per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).

In 2015 there were 1.12 traffic fatalities per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled. Statistically, this means you'd need to drive 89.3 million miles before your number comes up.

What about the National Safety Council's claim that 2015 was the "deadliest driving year since 2008"?

Hardly. 2015 saw the second-lowest fatality rate since NHTSA began keeping records. It slightly trailed the 1.08 rate of 2014, the all-time low.

By rights the Times piece should have read "U.S. Traffic Safety Nears All-Time High". But statements like that don't grab headlines or sell newspapers.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Disguised Speed Camera Nabs Violators

A driver speeding through a school zone in Scottsdale, Arizona can be greeted by a dazzling flash from an innocuous roadside box. Days later a ticket arrives in the mail. Tally up another victim of the Portable School Tower.

These nondescript boxes are automated-ticketing units containing a K-band radar, microprocessor, digital camera and powerful strobe flash. The assembly is light enough for a crewman to move it among locations near area schools.

The Portable School Tower is a product of American Traffic Solutions (ATS), one of the firms dominating the U.S. photo enforcement market and also headquartered in this metro Phoenix city. The company often tests new technology on local streets before rolling it out nationwide.

Fortunately, this is the same radar used in ATS photo radar vans and it can be detected—but only by a hypersensitive radar detector. Most don't alert until it's too late. Learn more...