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Radar's Traffic-Camera Alerts Catching On

7/06/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern

Traffic-camera alerts are overtaking the high end of the radar detector market and are creating an off- shoot market in stand-alone camera detectors that are poised to double in sales this year.

Traffic cameras — red-light cameras and speed cameras — that issue tickets costing more than $150 in many states are becoming a key tool of traffic enforcement. The cameras take photos of vehicles that run a red light or exceed the speed limit and then issue a ticket via the mail.

Products are now emerging that warn drivers as they approach one of these cameras. The products combine GPS with a database of the camera locations throughout the U.S.

Since Escort built in a camera locator in its top-of-the-line radar detector, the Passport 9500ix, the unit has become the company's best-selling model, despite its hefty $499 street price, said marketing manager Ron Gividen, who called the unit's popularity a “surprise.” Cobra has migrated the feature to much of its 2009 line as either a built-in or optional feature and said subscriptions to its camera database are growing each month.

Cobra has also entered the market for stand-alone camera locators, (without radar), joining others such as GPS Angel, Cheetah and Whistler who are selling models starting at $99. These stand-alone units plug into the cigarette lighter and mount on the windshield or dashboard. They are expected to double in unit sales this year to approximately 35,000 units, according to GPS Angel marketing VP Adam Fingerman.

Cheetah said its stand-alone locator sales are up year to date by about 30 percent in the U.S., and with additional cameras coming into use, especially in the state of Florida, it expects sales to rise by 100 percent for the full 2009, compared with last year.

“The main driver for this market is the number of cameras, in particular, speed cameras, that are installed on the ground. That's why the U.S. is going to be a regional market for the next two to three years,” said Al Smith, marketing VP for Cheetah.

High concentrations of cameras are found in such cities as New York, Chicago, Washington and Phoenix.

In Europe, the stand-alone camera locators outsell radar detectors 50-to-1 claimed Smith, because of the camera's widespread use.

About 5,000 speed- and red-light cameras are now in use in the U.S., expected to reach 6,000 or more by the end of the year, according to a consensus of industry members.

Cobra sees a market where drivers who live in a city where the cameras are abundant might buy a stand-alone locator, and those elsewhere might prefer a radar detector, said marketing and product development VP Sally Washlow.

The cost of traffic-camera tickets also varies by region. “In California, a red-light camera ticket will cost $436 and points on your license that will impair your car insurance for the next three to five years. In Maryland, the same ticket costs $40 with no points, and in New York it's $50 and there are no points. So the incentive in California is much bigger,” explained Smith.

Chicago collected $44.8 million from ticket penalties via its traffic cameras in 2008, said Washlow, citing the Chicago Department of Revenue. The fees came from 579,560 camera-issued tickets. Chicago now has 140 cameras, and the city would like to double that to 300 by the end of the year, Washlow added.

Most stand-alone locators are sold on the Internet rather than in stores because of the regional deployment of the cameras, although that is expected to change later this year, said suppliers.

Whistler sells its RLC-100, launched in May through Car Toys, and plans to offer locators through a yet-to-be-named mass merchant this fall, said marketing VP Leslie Folsom. Whistler plans to release a step-up locator within a month, called the RLC-250, that adds a full-color display and additional points of interest at $169. For both models, users get a year of free camera-location updates. After that, updates cost $19.99 for a year's subscription.

Cheetah's new C50 locator offers 65 possible voice alerts, warning of the type of camera and its location (such as “on the exit ramp” or “under the bridge”). To avoid false alarms, the unit only warns of the cameras that are monitoring your direction of travel, it claims. The C50 is expected to ship in August at $99. Users pay $29 for three years of camera-location updates, or $49 for lifetime updates and an extended three-year warranty.

Cobra's $99 SL3 launched in June and includes a database of speed and red-light cameras, known speed traps and hazardous intersections. It issues warnings by a series of flashing LED lights and is sold online, although it may be offered in stores in the fourth quarter, said the company. The price includes a year of free updates to the camera database, and users pay $29/year for updates thereafter.

Other products are staring to include the camera-locator capability, including GPS devices, iPhones and other smartphones (see story at right).

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