Suburban Police Chief Ron Sturgill's opinion of radar detectors is unequivocal - they are a criminal tool like a burglar's crowbar.

"I think they ought to be outlawed," he said. "People who own radar detectors are more likely to speed. There is no other purpose for having one."Condemnation of radar detectors is becoming a drumbeat among safety officials who say the devices lead to higher speeds, more accidents, more injuries and more deaths.

Recent safety studies have established a link between radar detectors and higher speeds on the nation's highways, say safety officials.

The manufacturers of radar detectors, including Cincinnati Microwave which makes the Passport and Escort detectors, argue that the studies that supposedly indict and convict radar detectors actually prove that owners of the devices are safer drivers.

Paul Allen, of Cincinnati Microwave's marketing and product development department, said criticism of radar detectors is nothing more than a campaign by insurance companies to outlaw the devices so more drivers will violate speeding laws.

"If you are an insurance company, the best possible world of all worlds is where everybody gets speeding tickets so you can charge them higher premiums," said Allen.

Allen said the nationally prominent Yankelovich research firm did a study in 1987 for his industry and found "radar detector owners are safer drivers."

About 2 million radar detectors have been sold by all U.S. manufacturers in the past 10 years.

A recent study for the Ohio Department of Highway Safety found that radar detectors were carried in cars involved in a disproportionate number of accidents on interstate highways.

A 1987 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety "looked at radar detectors' influence on speeding behavior," said the institute's president, Brian O'Neill. The institute is a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., funded by property and casualty insurance companies.

In the study, researchers set up police-style radar on Virginia and Maryland highways. O'Neill said the study found that "the faster the vehicle was traveling, the more likely it would suddenly slow down when the police-style radar was turned on."

"About 25 percent of the passenger cars that were going above 70 mph suddenly slowed down when the police radar was activated," he said. "About 50 percent of the tractor-trailers going above 70 mph also slowed down."

"Since speed, and excessive speed in particular, is a factor in many accidents, what we have here is a product that is facilitating, by avoidance of police enforcement, dangerous behavior," O'Neill said.

"Speed limits are trade-offs between mobility and safety. Radar detectors are overturning this balance," he said.

O'Neill's institute was one of five organizations that asked the Federal Highway Administration in May to make the use of radar detectors in commercial interstate commerce illegal. The other organizations were the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the AAA, the American Trucking Association and the National Safety Council.

But John Tomerlin, a highway safety expert hired by the radar detector industry, said O'Neill's 1987 study proved radar detector owners to be safer drivers than non-owners.

"The study found that radar detector owners were in a minority of people exceeding the speed limit. The study did find that most people were exceeding the speed limit."

Radar detectors have become extremely popular over the past decade, Tomerlin said, adding that in that same decade, the fatality rate in auto crashes has declined.

In 1976, some 45,523 people were killed in auto crashes in the United States. The death rate that year was 3.2 fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In 1986, more people were killed in auto crashes, but the fatality rate had decreased over that 10-year period to 2.5.

And in 1987, the number of people killed increased again, but the rate also declined to 2.4.

Tomerlin cited another study to support his arguments. A study in September by the Texas Transportation Institute, which is associated with Texas A&M University, was conducted in New Mexico, Texas, New York and Ohio. He said the study found that "there is no evidence to indicate that detector owners drive faster with detectors than they would without them, or when (police) radar isn't present."

Sturgill, of Blue Ash, Ohio, has another complaint about radar detectors - their popularity among thieves.

"We spend hundreds of hours investigating thefts of what is a criminal tool to begin with. That's like a drug dealer calling me up and asking me to investigate the theft of an ounce of cocaine from him."