The New York Times Wheels blog asks whether smartphone apps that are used to learn of speed traps count as radar detectors in states (such as Virginia) that prohibit the use of radar detectors. The smartphone apps allow a driver who spots a police car to press a button on his phone that relays his location information to the rest of the network. Other drivers with the same app then receive a warning when they approach that location.
Are these apps illegal in states that ban radar detectors? In the case of Virginia law, at least, I think the answer is pretty clearly “no.” The Virginia law that bans radar detectors is § 46.2-1079, and it says, in relevant part:
It shall be unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle on the highways of the Commonwealth when such vehicle is equipped with any device or mechanism, passive or active, to detect or purposefully interfere with or diminish the measurement capabilities of any radar, laser, or other device or mechanism employed by law-enforcement personnel to measure the speed of motor vehicles on the highways of the Commonwealth for law-enforcement purposes. . . . . However, provisions of this section shall not apply to any receiver of radio waves utilized for lawful purposes to receive any signal from a frequency lawfully licensed by any state or federal agency.
If I understand how the apps work, I don’t see how their use can violate this section. First, there is no “device or mechanism” that detects or interferes with speed-detecting devices. Any detection is by visual observation and judgment inside the human brain, which presumably cannot count as a “device or mechanism.” Second, the driver who uses the app is not actually detecting laser or radar, but rather is guessing based on the location of the police vehicle that police laser or radar is possibly or probably in use. Third, I’m not sure if having a phone in your pocket when you’re in a car means that the “vehicle is equipped” with the phone’s applications. The idea of a vehicle “equipped” with a device seems to me to suggest a device that is physically connected to the vehicle or else has no real use outside it, which would likely not be the case for a smartphone app. Finally, the exception for devices that receive radio waves might possibly apply, although I assume that was drafted to refer mostly to car radios, not cell phones.