Did you know that law enforcement has been using radar technology to monitor vehicle speed since the 1950s? Basically a radio wave that travels at a fixed frequency is sent from a transmitter until it hits a target. The wave then bounces back from the target and is read by a receiver. The receiver records the time it takes for the radar signal to bounce off the target and return to the transmitter, giving the police officer an accurate report of the vehicle's speed. Radar detectors were invented to detect these radar signals coming from law enforcement.

In the early 1970s, Congress set the national speed limit at 55 miles per hour. This was an unpopular law and many drivers used radar detectors in an effort to get away with driving faster. Initially this law was issued in response to the OPEC oil embargo in an effort to reduce fuel consumption. The hope was that by reducing the speed limit, gasoline usage could be reduced by 2.2%. However, the US Department of Transportation calculated actual fuel savings to be one percent. In addition, independent studies found that savings were as low as half of one percent.

In 1974, the first year of the 55 mile per hour speed limit, there was a drop in reported highway fatalities. Because of this drop in fatalities, it was believed that the 55 mile per hour speed limit increased highway safety. Because of the perception of increased safety, Congress made the 55 mile per hour speed limit a permanent law in 1975. However, it was later learned that the drop in fatalities had more to do with the fact that people were driving less because of the fuel shortage than it had to do with traffic safety.

For Your Safety

According to the law enforcement community, radar technology has been used to promote highway safety. After the national speed limit was lowered to 55 and people suddenly had to travel 15 to 20 miles per hour slower than they were used to, many motorists believed that radar was used more for generating revenue than for safety.

Dale Smith, a frustrated motorist from Ohio, who got caught in what he thought was an unfair speed trap, decided to fight back. In the early 1970s, Smith invented a device that could alert drivers to radar signals in the area. He called this device a Fuzzbuster, and the radar detector was born.

The Fuzzbuster

The national speed limit law was very unpopular, and driver compliance was almost nonexistent. In a 1982 study, speed was monitored on New York highways with an 83% noncompliance. From the beginning, it was hard to enforce the 55 mile per hour speed   even as law enforcement set up more speed traps and increased fines and penalties for driving above the limit. It seemed like this was America's favorite law to break, and it was a golden age for the business of radar detectors.

The Fuzzbuster was the brand name of the first radar detector. This product became popular as motorists played a game of cat and mouse with law enforcement, and that the term Fuzzbuster became synonymous for all radar detectors. The Fuzzbuster only scanned for radar using the X band. This meant that the device alerted motorists to everything that emitted X bands, such motion sensors, burglar alarms and supermarket door openers, in addition to police radar guns. In populated areas, these early radar detectors often alerted drivers to the presence of these non-police X bands. When traveling on interstate highways in wide open spaces, the Fuzzbuster did a much better job of detecting actual police radar.

As radar detectors rose in popularity, law enforcement turned to newer radar technology and mostly abandoned radar guns that used the X band. The first significant change was to the K band. This gave the police a significant advantage until the manufacturers of radar detectors could come up with a device that could also detect that band. Many law enforcement agencies are moving away from radar completely and are moving to laser. Lasers use light instead of radio waves to detect a vehicle's speed. The light beam is narrower than a radio wave and much harder to detect. In many cases, by the time radar detectors alert you to the presence of laser, it is already too late.

The best radar detectors can detect X, K, Ka and Ku radar bands in addition to all types of laser used by law enforcement today.

Modern Radar Detectors

In 1995, Congress repealed the 55 miles per hour speed limit and gave the power back to each state to set limits. You can legally travel the nation's highways at speeds up to 80 miles per hour in some places. If you can legally travel at these speeds, is there a need for radar detectors today? How fast do you need to go?

Today's radar detectors are used more for safety than for speeding. There are still those who want to drive faster than everybody else on the road, but most are content to travel within the posted speed limits. Good radar detectors can alert you to speed traps, fixed speed cameras and potential road hazards. These early warnings can help you drive more safely and can save you from hefty fines.

As you read our reviews, keep in mind what it is you need from a radar detector so you can make the best possible decision.

More Top Stories