America: Land of freeway, and home of radar detector


Radar detectors are very American devices: They are products manufactured for the purpose of breaking the law.

This baffles people in some other countries. "If speeding is illegal," they ask, "why is it legal to sell devices that help people speed?"

Well, because this is America, that's why. We are the land of the free, not the land of the logical.

Only Virginia and the District of Columbia ban radar detectors. (New York and Illinois ban them in trucks.)

And one industry group estimates that Americans own about 15 million of the devices.

Some truckers are particularly fond of radar detectors. In some cases, the faster a trucker can drive, the more money he can make. And one way to speed and not get caught as often is to use a radar detector.

For the past few years, however, terrible crashes involving trucks have captured the public attention.

Truckers, who used to be thought of as the "Knights of the Road," are now often thought of as the guys barreling down on us in our rear-view mirrors and trying to muscle us out of the way.

So some legislators led by Sen. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., decided that a ban on radar detectors in big rigs would not only be a good idea, but politically feasible.

(Why not ban radar detectors in cars, too? Forget it. Too many voters own radar detectors.)

Trucks carrying hazardous materials, Lautenberg says, "are likely, with radar detectors, to be breaking the speed limit" 60 percent of the time.

"That means a potential explosion, fire, death," Lautenberg says. "It's awful."

Motor vehicle crashes are the fourth-leading cause of death for all ages in this country and account for 38 percent of the deaths for those 16-22.

According to the National Safety Council, there is on average a motor vehicle death once every 13 minutes and an injury every 14 seconds.

The Insurance Information Institute estimates there were 31.8 million crashes in 1992, which cost about $98.1 billion and resulted in 5.4 million people being hurt.

That institute also believes there is "clear evidence of the destructive nature of speeding."

But not everybody buys it.

A group called the National Motorists Association, headed by James J. Baxter of Dane, Wis., says speeding can actually be good for you.

"When speeds are increased, highway capacity is increased and congestion is reduced," Baxter says. "Higher speeds increase driver attentiveness and reduce accidents related to boredom and fatigue, the largest cause of all vehicle accidents."

Baxter opposes a ban on radar detectors, but the array of forces in favor of a ban in trucks is impressive:

The American Automobile Association, the American Trucking Association, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Safety Council, the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the National Association of Governors and Public Citizen formed a coalition and petitioned the Federal Highway Administration in July 1990 to ban radar detectors on commercial vehicles.

Congress supported this, and the Bush administration first decided to institute such a ban, but then shelved it.

Now, however, the Clinton administration has dusted it off, and sources at the Federal Highway Administration told me this week that a ban on radar detectors in trucks weighing more than 18,000 pounds. should be announced shortly.

Jason Richards, the head of RADAR, which represents radar detector manufacturers and dealers, is angry.

"The insurance industry wants this ban on radar detectors so when you get a speeding ticket, they can raise your rates,"

Richards says. "The truck owners want it because they will get a discount from insurance companies. The truck drivers don't want it.

"The police use radar to produce revenue. It does not contribute to safety."

All indications are, however, that the Clinton administration does buy the argument that speed kills, believes radar detectors are linked to speeding, and thinks that banning them in 2.5 million trucks might save a few lives.

Nobody believes that all truckers will stop speeding. But some will. And the others will get more tickets.

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