McGinn: Can GPS Make 'Fuzzbusting' Respectable?

Like Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rain Man," I like to think that I'm an excellent driver—but that wasn't always true. In my first decade behind the wheel I drove much too fast, and I racked up a string of speeding tickets. I've been cited for driving 72mph in a 50mph zone, 48 in a 25, and 25 in a 15. I've been stopped in five states, from South Carolina to Maine. Now in my 30s, I've begun driving like a grown-up, and so far this century I've garnered just a single ticket. But for a time, I was the embodiment of the target market sought after by Cobra Electronics, best known for its line of radar detectors.

Radar detectors have been beeping warnings to lead-footed drivers since the 1970s, but a new generation of these devices has been hitting the street. These latest gizmos have a new goal: to help drivers avoid both speeding tickets and citations for running red lights, which are increasingly doled out by automated "photo-enforcement cameras." Photo enforcement systems, which cities began installing in the 1990s, use cameras and sensors to photograph the license plates of cars entering an intersection after a traffic light turns to red; companies that operate the cameras then mail a ticket to the owner. Cobra's latest models, the XRS 9950 and XRS R9G, add a GPS function to their detectors. The devices constantly check the car's position against a database of verified camera-equipped intersections. When drivers are approaching such a danger zone, a voice announces, "Photo enforcement ahead"—advising them not to push their luck with that yellow light.

For scofflaw drivers, this is an obvious benefit—but for the rest of us, it's an interesting application of what tech strategists call "location-based technology." As GPS becomes ubiquitous, it has the potential to dramatically affect the way we shop, interact with friends and respond to advertising. Just this month Apple unveiled its new iPhone, which includes a GPS-powered function called Loopt. That service alerts friends when you're nearby, in case you're in the mood for a spontaneous get-together. GPS has already made life easier for pizza-delivery guys and FedEx drivers, and it's one of those technologies that, while not as celebrated as Facebook or Google, have the potential to be a game-changer for many kinds of businesses.

Radar detectors are an interesting case in point. Since their inception, the devices' primary function has been to warn drivers when they sense the presence of the radar and laser guns police use to determine cars' speeds. The GPS-enabled red-light-camera warnings are a logical add-on. But at the same time, GPS constitutes a threat. As more cars become outfitted with GPS, crafty drivers can get some of the benefits of a radar detector by adding new applications to their existing GPS units. For the past two years, Jonathan Melby and his wife, MaryAnn, have run a Web site called POI Factory, which users of "personal navigation devices" (made by companies like Garmin and TomTom) can use to download "points of interest" that aren't preinstalled in their gizmo. One of POI Factory's most popular files contains a usergenerated list of stoplight cameras, and when users download it into their Garmin or TomTom, it offers the same basic functionality as Cobra's red-light-camera warnings. "As we were looking into our users' interests, that seemed to really capture people's interest," says Jonathan Melby, who also offers databases of speed traps.

While personal navigation devices may constitute a small threat to Cobra, the company is also aware that its own move into GPS applications could serve to widen its market. Standard radar detectors hold little appeal to drivers who obey the law; that's why it's illegal to use the devices in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and much of Canada. But red-light-camera detectors can be helpful even to people who don't plan to run red lights. Fabein Pichon is a 65-year-old real-estate agent in Scottsdale, Ariz., who hasn't received a traffic ticket since the 1970s. But he's seen a half-dozen really bad accidents caused by people running lights, so he's outfitted his Garmin with POI Factory's red-light-camera database to warn him when he's approaching especially dangerous intersections, which are more likely to be equipped with cameras. "The alert tells me to exercise extreme caution [and] makes me more observant," Pichon says. Craig Depken, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte economist who has studied why people run red lights, says the more people are aware of the cameras, the higher their value as a deterrent, which is why some cities post signs advertising the cameras' presence.

Over time, new features like this could change the way people use radar detectors—and reinvent their image. Some of Cobra's devices already use special sensors to provide early warning that an emergency vehicle is nearby, letting drivers prepare to pull over to the shoulder. Sally Washlow, Cobra's vice president for consumer products, says the company has considered adding a GPS-enabled function that would alert drivers when they're in a school zone, so they know to slow down. "We tend to think this will broaden the base," says Washlow. Indeed, perhaps over time, new technologies can help transform the "fuzzbuster" from a device that appeals mainly to the young and reckless drivers many of us once were into a respectable tool for the safety-conscious, minivan-driving adults we've become.