In most states you can use a radar detector for personal use to avoid speeding tickets, and there's really not much your car insurance company can do about it.
A radar detector alerts the driver when it picks up signals emitted by radar equipment that police use to catch speeders. The idea is for the warning to sound before the cop points the radar gun at you.
Ranging in price from about $35 to more than $500, even a pricey model would more than pay for itself if it kept you from getting a ticket and subsequent hike in your car insurance rates.
Like any high-tech gizmo, radar detectors have gotten more sophisticated. Using GPS technology, some of today's detectors can calculate how fast you're going and then adjust their sensitivity to radar signals accordingly. You need long-range sensitivity when you're going fast and shorter-range sensitivity in town.
Some radar detectors provide digital voice alerts, and some can detect laser as well as radar signals. Now that local governments are using speed and red-light cameras, some models come loaded with information about the camera locations, which you can update using a computer and Internet connection. Many of today's radar detectors also work in conjunction with smartphone apps.
Not legal everywhere
Beware that radar detectors are prohibited in Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as on U.S. military bases. In Canada, they are prohibited in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Quebec.
In addition, 20 states besides Virginia and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of radar detectors in commercial vehicles.
If you're ticketed for unlawful use of a radar detector as a non-commercial driver, you'll face a fine of up to $300 in the District of Columbia. In Virginia, you'll pay about $100. In Fairfax County, for instance, the fine is $40, and the processing fee is $62.
The offense does not count as a moving violation, and no demerit points are assigned for a violation in D.C. or Virginia. As a result, a ticket for unlawful use of a radar detector would not impact your car insurance rates, CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner says.
Since police began using radar guns, law enforcement and radar detector manufacturers have engaged in a cat-and-mouse game. To combat the illegal use of radar detectors, law enforcement developed "radar detector detectors." These devices do what their name says. They detect signals emitted by radar detectors and alert police when one is in use. Now many radar detectors are built to shield themselves from detection by the most common type of radar detector-detector technology, known as VG-2. Another type of radar detector-detector technology called Spectre was developed, which was supposed to be harder to escape. But some new radar detectors offer shielding from Spectre as well.
Not surprisingly, traffic safety advocates don't like radar detectors. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says its research has shown that interstate highway drivers with radar detectors slowed down by at least 5 mph or stepped on the brakes when exposed to police radar. Beforehand, the drivers with radar detectors were traveling faster than drivers without them. After they were one mile past the radar, the drivers with detectors were going at least 5 mph faster than the speed limit.
"Research shows that drivers with radar detectors are consistently overrepresented among the fastest speeders," the institute says on its website.
Radar and your insurance
Insurance companies base premiums in part on what kind of car you drive, but generally wouldn't know whether you owned a radar detector.
"Radar detector owners generally need not identify themselves to an auto insurer," Insurance Information Institute spokesman Michael Barry says.
Gusner says none of the insurers she has run across ask applicants whether they use radar detectors.
Geico made headlines in the late 1980s when it fought for the right to deny coverage to drivers who used radar detectors. A Maryland Geico customer whose policy was canceled because he used a radar detector took his complaint to the state's insurance commissioner. The commissioner ruled in 1988 that Geico could no longer deny coverage on that basis. The next year Geico dumped a policyholder in California for having a radar detector, and the California Department of Insurance ordered the insurer to offer to renew the policy.
Radar detector or not, it's a good idea to slow down to the speed limit. Speed is a factor in almost one-third of fatal car crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
And a speeding ticket will cost you big bucks by the time you pay the penalty plus all the related fees and fines. In Riverside County, Calif., for instance, the penalty for going 1 to 15 mph over the speed limit is $35, but the total tab, once all the other charges are added, is $233. You pay a total of $362 for traveling 16 to 25 mph over the limit and $485 for exceeding the limit by at least 26 mph. In some states the penalties are stiffer. In North Carolina, for instance, the penalty for "excessive speeding" is a mandatory 30-day driver's license suspension.
On top of ticket charges, you'll pay more for car insurance.
"A minor speeding ticket might be ignored if it's your first ticket," Gusner says.
Or it might prompt a 10 to 15 percent surcharge. A second speeding ticket or a first ticket for major speeding will increase your rates anywhere from about 20 to 40 percent, Gusner says. Insurers see speeding as a red flag signaling greater risk, so they raise rates to protect their bottom line.
"The faster you go, the more it's going to hurt you," Gusner says.