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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones