It might seem counterintuitive, but police officers are writing more tickets and making less money. They're being tougher on drivers, issuing tickets for drivers going just 10 mph over the speed limit than 20 mph, but the fines for smaller infractions are less.
For example, in the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg area of Florida, police handed out 1,500 more tickets in 2010 than they did in 2008. But revenue from those tickets declined nearly $200,000 over those two years, hitting $494,214 in 2010.
Drivers, too, are getting smarter. Widespread use of radar detectors and smart-phone apps that keep drivers aware of speed traps are helping drivers avoid getting tickets in the first place.
The best defense against speeding tickets is to drive no more than 5 miles over the speed limit. But it can be easy, for example, to sneak up to 45 mph in a 35 mph zone, or even get up to 80 mph on a highway straight-away that is a 65 mph zone.
There are several tools, some of which are free, that give drivers a fighting chance to avoid the dreaded ticket and points on their license that will result in higher auto insurance premiums, as well as lighten their lead feet. As the economy remains sluggish and tax revenues down, pressure is mounting on law enforcement to write more tickets.
Radar detectors, such as the Escort 9500 IX, that alert a driver to a police car armed with a radar gun are legal in every state except Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia. But there are also some free smart-phone apps that inform a driver, though not with 100% accuracy, where the police are set up to catch speeders.
If you don't want to spend any money, you can try the free Trapster, PhantomAlert and Fuzz Alert apps for smartphones. These apps display a map on the phone, and as the driver is going along, patrol cars, red-light cameras and school zones are displayed. The app will let the driver know audibly what is coming up, so eyes can stay safely on the road.
These apps are helpful, but not foolproof. Both Trapster and PhantomAlert rely on drivers who have downloaded the apps to touch the screen when they see a speed trap. Consider this a sort of social networking approach to avoiding tickets.
The shortcoming with these apps, though, is that police cars change their locations throughout the day. On a recent drive between Toledo, Ohio and Sandusky, Ohio, a 60 mile stretch of the Ohio Turnpike known for speed-traps, every warning of a patrol car provided by Trapster was a false alarm. On the plus-side, the fact that it showed four patrol cars on the highway governed my speed, so I avoided tickets anyway. I already knew that highway was heavily patrolled, but an out-of-state driver passing through would be well warned by even the ghost patrol-cars on the app to slow down.
On my return trip, I employed PhantomAlert. This experience proved the point about how the app is affected by police cars changing their locations. Three warnings were empty, but a half mile after passing one of the alerts, I saw a state trooper who had pulled a car over onto the shoulder. I'm glad it wasn't me.
Fuzz Alert works the same way, but because it's not as popular as the others its ability to leverage the social network appears weaker. Three 60-mile commutes on Michigan highways came up empty with no alerts at all.
Another popular app, Cobra iRadar, allows drivers to connect your iPhone to a conventional radar detector -- boosting its performance by giving it updated information.
These apps have been controversial, though, because, until recently, they also tipped off drivers to Driving Under the Influence (DUI) checkpoints.
Earlier this month, smartphone makers instructed the app makers to delete the DUI feature at the behest of four Democratic U.S. senators -- Charles Schumer of New York, Harry Reid of Nevada, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Tom Udall of New Mexico. Canada-based Research in Motion, maker of BlackBerry smart-phones, pulled the apps immediately. Apple and Google initially balked, but then agreed.
"Apps which contain DUI checkpoints that are not published by law enforcement agencies, or encourage and enable drunk driving, will be rejected," Apple's new guidelines say.
Paying For Radar Detectors
You can also pay varying amounts for radar detectors. These can range from well below $100 to more than $600 for devices with lots of bells and whistles. Beware the cheap radar detector, though. You want one that has range enough to give you plenty of time to slow down before your Chevy Camaro is practically climbing into the patrolman's passenger seat.
One favorite, at the higher end of the price ladder, which has been around for a few years, is the Escort Redline ($487.99 at Amazon.com). This radar detector has the benefit of being a somewhat "long-range" detector, meaning it will give the driver more time to brake before coming up on the patrol car, and it will not be detected by the police in Virginia or Washington DC where radar detectors are illegal. When driving through Virginia and DC, the law requires the devices be disabled. AOL Autos recommends following the law in all instances.
The Escort Passport 9500ix ($479.14 at Amazon.com) detects four bands of radar, as well as speed traps and red-light cameras. Over time, the machine actually "learns" the routes you take most often, editing out false alarms and alerting only when there is a real speed trap.
A lot of these radar detectors will be very obtrusive in the beginning, and send out a bunch of false alarms. Then, as their systems begin to store data through the internal GPS antenna, they become much smoother in their operation.
The Cobra's XRS 9960G ($149.99 at Amazon.com) is a unit that allows, if you are really obsessive, to update new speed-trap locations and red-light cameras daily if you want to. The unit's GPS unit is on a USB dongle that can be plugged directly into your computer for daily updates to the AURA database. The unit is the same size as a USB key, so it's small and convenient. A good unit for anyone, but especially if you have a daily commute along a heavily "trapped" area.
The Beltronics V955 Vector High-Performance Radar Detector ($135.49 at Amazon.com) is a good choice at the lower end of the price ladder as well. A good value, this model will detect radar and laser based speed detectors, as well as alert you to highway construction or maintenance, highway hazard zone advisories, weather-related hazards, slow-moving vehicles.
One tip: Don't get sucked into buying the latest radar detector. Prices tend to come down a year or two after the new models are introduced. The Cobra XRS 996OG, for example, was almost $400 when it came out in 2009, and now can be had for less than half that price.
Are radar detectors worth it? Just one ticket on the Ohio Turnpike for going 15 miles over the speed limit can cost almost as much as the Cobra detector, to say nothing of the increase in insurance premiums. In St. Petersburg, Fla., going 48 mph in a 35 mpg zone will cost you $206, well more than either the Cobra or Beltronics models we discussed.
Drive safely, but drive smartly.