A grey area for the boys in blue

Three million of us use radar detectors to beat police speed traps. Are they legal, and do they work? Yes and no. By Phil Llewellin and Penny Jackson

If you're worried about being fined for speeding, kitting yourself out with a radar detector might seem to be the answer. These small, easily concealed devices bleep a warning when they pick up signals from police speed traps. In theory, the signal is intercepted several seconds before the radar pinpoints the vehicle and calculates its velocity. Prices range from pounds 125 to pounds 400, but whether or not the device is legal is rather a grey area.

The AA says: "British motorists are being conned into buying equipment that could land them with fines of up to pounds 5,000." Yet suppliers of radar detectors maintain that there is nothing in the law that specifies these goods are illegal, pointing out that, as yet, there has been no test case.

"Protect your licence!" and "The best protection you can buy against photo radar and laser" are the sort of advertisement headlines you see in perfectly respectable motoring magazines. Hawk-eyed readers may also spot caveats, printed in microscopic type, along the lines of the one published by a company called Radar World. "It is not an offence to sell or own a radar detector in the UK," it says "but use of one will contravene the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949."

Radar has been used to enforce Britain's speed limits since the 1950s. Radar detectors for motorists are legal in most American states and have been exported to this side of the Atlantic for many years. The leading brands include Whistler, Escort, BelTronics and Cobra.

"There would appear to be no specific legislation covering the use of radar detectors," one mail-order firm told me. Yet the letter concluded: "Should you decide to purchase a detector, we would venture to suggest that providence not be tempted by having the device operating in the presence of any enforcement agency. Switch the unit off and/or remove it from show."

Another retailer wrote: "To complete a prosecution, the police would have to prove you evaded their radar device by picking up their signal and changing your driving habits accordingly. This is almost impossible and has never been proved in this country."

Other replies included literature in the form of a "driver's licence" with "Banned!" stamped across it in big, red letters. The message was as subtle as a kick in the teeth: "Up to 3 million motorists will be prosecuted this year for speeding. Without a powerful detection device in your vehicle, you are at risk! In many cases a speed-trap detector will cost less than a single speeding ticket."

The price list accompanying the leaflet carried a warning about the legal status in tiny type. But as far as the Radiocommunications Agency (part of the Department of Trade) is concerned there's no grey area. In the eyes of the law, a radar detector is a radio receiver, it states. As such, it must receive only transmissions intended for general reception.

"There are many authorised users of radio, such as the police and other emergency services," the agency points out. "These users need radio to enable them to carry out their activities and are protected by law from unauthorised people listening in to their transmissions."

There are no official statistics for the number of detectors sold or used in Britain. However, one of the retailers contacted by an incognito AA investigator said the figure had increased from 6 per cent of drivers in 1988 to 12 per cent in 1995.

"If that is correct, more than 3 million motorists are breaking the law," says Andrew Howard, head of the AA's road safety department. "Speeding costs 1,200 lives a year and contributes to more than a third of road accidents. Speed-trap detectors are dangerous and their sale should be outlawed."

Mr Howard's opinion was endorsed by a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers' traffic committee. "These devices are difficult to detect - almost impossible - and they offer a chance to break the law," he said. "Our roads are the safest in Europe, but there is no getting away from speed being a major factor in accidents. The sale and possession of radar detectors should be made illegal."

Anyone tempted to buy a detector should remember that radar is only one of several methods used for checking speed. Another favourite is Vascar, in which a time-and-distance computer is used to calculate speed between two fixed points, such as bridges or clear marks on the road surface. This does not emit a signal. Then there's "clocking": many drivers are booked after being followed and monitored by police cars whose identity may not become apparent until lights start flashing.

But while sales talk suggests one can "speed through Europe as well", the AA thinks otherwise. Police forces abroad are often robust, it says, and having a detector properly wired into the car, rather than just plugged into the cigarette lighter socket, does not deter French police from ripping it out and throwing it away.

Another retailer, Intec Systems International, says it is a member of the small but vocal Association of British Drivers, which is campaigning for an 85mph motorway limit. This would put Britain more or less in line with France. But the ABD's founder and chairman, Brian Gregory, a 41- year-old industrial chemist, declined to either condemn or condone detectors. For him, the issue is realistic speed limits.

"Detectors wouldn't be necessary if we had realistic, respect-worthy speed limits, notably in non-urban areas," he said. "Speed kills, according to the Department of Transport, and 70mph is said to be the safest maximum speed. That's rubbish in relation, for instance, to a well-maintained car on an empty motorway in good weather and good visibility. But motorists who exceed the limit in those circumstances risk being prosecuted, fined and possibly banned. The incorrect and irresponsible misuse of speed is what causes accidents, not speed in itself."

Many essentially law-abiding people are unhappy about the official attitude to speed, he said. "In particular, high-mileage business drivers who spend a lot of time on motorways - which are our safest roads by a wide margin - are increasingly disaffected. They regard the radar detector as some form of protection in a situation they see as being all stick and no carrot." PL

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