Monday, February 24, 2020

Annoying Fog Lights

Fog lights used on clear nights annoy other drivers
Whenever I drive at night it's hard not to notice that maybe three out of four cars I meet have their fog lights on. Instead of squinting at the glare from two lights, now I'm coping with four.
If there was some safety benefit to driving around on clear nights with the fog lights blazing, I wouldn't complain. But as the name suggests, fog lights are for use in fog.  Regardless, many drivers seem to regard them as fashion accessories and leave them switched on for the life of the vehicle.
Fog lights are for dense fog or blowing snow when headlights ricochet off the water droplets and back into a driver's eyes.  They have extra-sharp horizontal cutoffs to direct the light down and just ahead of the vehicle.
They're not driving lights and don't augment the high beams by throwing extra light down the road. If that were the case, vehicles factory-equipped with fog lights would allow the driver to turn them on along with the high beams.
Some drivers defend the full-time use of fog lights, claiming that more lights make a car easier to see at night. In my opinion, a driver who can't see two headlights after dark shouldn't be driving in the first place.
A lot of states dictate fog light mounting height and the maximum number allowed. For example, my home state of Arizona permits no more than two. But only a few make it illegal to drive on clear nights with the fog lights on.
In Louisiana and Oklahoma it's illegal to drive with the fog lights on unless visibility is reduced due to weather.  In Oregon fog lights are to be treated like high beams: they must be shut off when following another car within 350 feet or if an oncoming car is within 500 feet.
These states are among the few exceptions. Elsewhere, clueless drivers are free to annoy others by leaving them on permanently.
Some drivers install their own fog lights which, judging from the results, often seems to be a waste of time. Many are too small to be effective. 
Hella fog light
In lights the key factor is the size and shape of the reflector.  Make it too small and lighting efficiency drops off the map. You might be able to see the light, but it won't be doing much to light the road.
This means that a round fog light with a diameter less than about four inches is probably not big enough to be useful.  In rectangular lights, a three-by-five-inch model is on the small side.
This can pose a problem when it comes to fitting them onto a vehicle. To be effective, fog lights need to be mounted low. Factory car stylists can pencil them in easily enough, but aftermarket designers are in a quandry. Make the light big enough to be effective and many customers won't buy it. The objections: too big, too tough to find space for it.
Make it fashionably small and the light might be a sales success, but it probably won't be very effective.
Turning on the fog lights is a desperation move, for conditions so lousy that headlights don't help much. The rest of the time they're unnecessary, not to mention annoying. So to everyone who's driving around on clear nights with their fog lights on, please turn the damn things off.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Policing For Profit

I spoke recently with a man in Tennessee who'd been stopped by a trooper in Virginia for "failure to maintain lane". His left tires had drifted over the lane divider. At least that's what the trooper said when the puzzled driver asked why he'd been pulled over.
This charge is a favorite with troopers, giving them legal cover to make a traffic stop. The driver may not be guilty, but good luck proving that in court.
This is when things got weird. "I know you got a wad a money on you," the trooper said. "I got electronics that hit on your car, so I know it's there. The only thing we got to find out is how much you're carrying."
Virginia state troopers use radar detector-detectors to spot illicit detectors—Virginia is the only state that bans radar detectors in cars—but the trooper was lying about the cash-detector.  There's no electronic gizmo that can sniff out currency in a passing car.
Regardless, the driver was carrying a lot of cash, $33,000. He was heading to Richmond to buy a motor home. Unfortunately for him, he made the mistake of telling the truth and showed the cash to the trooper.
The trooper gave him a choice: either sign a waiver promising not to sue and surrender the cash or get charged with drug dealing and go to jail. Not surprisingly, he signed. Only then was he permitted to leave.
Called civil asset forfeiture, this scenario is played out so often on Interstates that in recent years, citizens have lost far more money to cops than to robbers.
In most cases no criminal charges are filed.  The officer merely claims that the cash was likely the proceeds of illegal activity and pressures the driver into surrendering it, often using the threat of criminal charges and jail.
To get it back, the motorist must prove the cash was acquired legitimately. In essence, the money is guilty until proven innocent.
There are three types of asset forfeiture, criminal, administrative and civil. Criminal asset forfeiture is most frequently used to take property from individuals and cartels convicted of drug dealing. And to prevail, the government must link the property or cash to the crime and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was gained as a result of a criminal act.
The legal bar for civil asset forfeiture is much lower, requiring only a preponderance of evidence. It's a he-says/she-says contest unless the motorist lawyers-up and fights back.  The process routinely takes a year or more—and most lawyers don't work for free.
Asset forfeiture was rarely seen until 1984 when Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. It created a special federal fund that turned over most of the proceeds from asset forfeitures to the law enforcement agencies responsible for them.
Called Equitable Sharing, it served as a road map for states that quickly passed their own forfeiture laws.
The practice saw a huge spike after Sept. 11, 2001 when the government asked police to heighten their awareness. Called "Look Beyond the [License] Plate", local departments and state troopers began using traffic stops as a pretext to look for suspicious people, drugs—and cash.
A cottage industry has grown up around civil asset forfeiture. States including Virginia hire training firms to teach troopers how to use it. Many subscribe to private, law enforcement-only databases like Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System that provide detailed reports about motorists: addresses, SSNs, identifying tattoos and other tidbits.
Law enforcement departments in many states routinely involve federal agencies in asset forfeitures, letting the Feds absorb the administrative expenses while knowing they'll be getting a big percentage of the funds back via Equitable Sharing.
Only North Carolina bans civil asset forfeiture, requiring a criminal conviction before someone's assets can be seized. A few states, like Missouri and Maine, funnel seized funds into public education. Most direct the cash into the general fund.
States with few restrictions on civil asset forfeiture—Virginia, Texas and Michigan, for example—also seem to experience the most scandals. Those states place few restrictions on where the money is spent and departments use the cash to buy equipment, pay salaries and overtime, conduct investigations and even pay themselves bonuses.
A 2014 Washington Post investigation found that "a thriving subculture of road officers on the network now competes to see who can seize the most cash and contraband, describing their exploits in the network’s chat rooms and sharing 'trophy shots' of money and drugs. Some police advocate highway interdiction as a way of raising revenue for cash-strapped municipalities."
“All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine,” Deputy Ron Hain of Kane County, Ill., wrote in a self-published book under a pseudonym. Hain is a marketing specialist for Desert Snow, a leading interdiction training firm based in Guthrie, Okla., whose founders also created Black Asphalt.
Hain’s book calls for 'turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods.'”

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.