Drivers Try an Anti-Photo
By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2004; Page A01
If you inspected Will Foreman's SUV, you might notice how
clean and shiny his license plates are. But you probably
wouldn't detect the clear glossy coating the Howard County
resident sprayed on them eight months ago to thwart traffic
cameras from snapping readable photos of his tags.
"It must work," says Foreman. He has not received
a traffic camera ticket since using a $29.99 spray called
Auto store owner Will Foreman uses PhotoBlocker spray to
reflect the flash of a photo-radar camera. (Gerald Martineau
-- The Washington Post)
Foreman, owner of Eastover Auto Supply, also coated the
plates of his eight delivery trucks. He says they previously
drew $1,200 in photo-radar fines but none since the application.
And he has had no complaints from customers who have bought
about 700 cans of the spray at his shop. "If it didn't
work, we would've heard about it," he says.
Furman Eldridge of Cheverly bought PhotoBlocker a year
ago as "a defense mechanism." He has enough faith
in it that he says he gave a can to his pastor.
"I've always been a law-abiding citizen," he
says. "You don't want people speeding, but I don't
think it should flash you if you're just going five miles
over the limit."
As jurisdictions increasingly turn to automated red-light
and speed-radar cameras, products promising consumers stealth
protection have multiplied. Dozens are on the market. In
addition to the products' effectiveness, their use raises
legal and ethical questions for consumers.
Cheaper than radar detectors (which are illegal in the
District and Virginia), sprays such as PhotoBlocker, are
advertised as reflecting the flash back at automated cameras
to overexpose the license plate. The photo is said to look
like a picture taken with a flash in front of a mirror --
glared. Other products cover license plates with plastic
shields. The Reflector ($19.95) uses reflective sparkles
embedded in clear plastic. The PhotoShield ($25) uses a
thin prismlike lens.
These products sell mostly online, although some have found
their way to auto parts stores. PhotoBlocker, for instance,
is sold online at PhantomPlate.com and at 10 independent
auto supply dealers between Baltimore and Centreville --
and at one car wash.
"It sells okay. If I could sell it for $5, I could
sell a whole lot more," says Harold Berger, owner of
Kenilworth Car Wash. "The people who usually buy it
have gotten tickets. People don't want to spend $30 unless
they got burned. It's like paying for a ticket upfront,
Joe Scott, marketing director for PhantomPlate, the Alexandria
firm that makes PhotoBlocker, says about 100,000 cans have
sold in four years. And with traffic camera programs multiplying
faster abroad than in the United States, his product is
now sold on six continents. "Sales have been phenomenal,"
The big questions are: Do these products work, and are
Former Baltimore police officer Bob Kleebauer conducted
his own road test. Late one night in March, he drove to
the intersection where his wife got a photo-radar ticket.
His license plate coated with PhotoBlocker, he waited until
no cars were coming, then ran the light.
He took that "$75 chance" because he believes
red-light cameras are revenue traps targeting decent people,
says Kleebauer, now a telecom salesman. "Ninety-nine
percent of the drivers who get caught are law-abiding citizens
who do it accidentally. You are approaching a yellow light
and you have a tenth of a second to brake or go. Make the
wrong decision and they got you."
His test finding: "The flash went off behind me, but
I've never received a ticket."
The Denver Police Department, at the behest of Fox News,
conducted a road test two years ago and found that PhotoBlocker
was effective, plate covers less so. Similar results were
found by TV news programs in Great Britain, Australia and
Five Washington area police departments declined to or
didn't respond to requests that they conduct roadside tests
for The Washington Post. Those who responded said they didn't
have time and wouldn't want to promote a product that may
be illegal or interferes with law enforcement.
"We'd have to shut down the streets and traffic, and
all of our red-light cameras are at major intersections,"
says Capt. David Mellender of the Fairfax City Police Department,
which uses seven red-light cameras. "And if it does
work, we don't want them to know about that."
Fairfax County has 13 red-light cameras and plans to add
two more by year's end. Bud Walker, an officer with the
county's police department, says a field test "could
be seen as an endorsement, and as a public institution we
can't do that."
Despite the television news tests, there's little consensus
about the effectiveness.
Speed Measurement Laboratories -- consultants to police
departments and radar and radar-detector makers worldwide
-- has tested most products designed to defeat photo enforcement,
including car waxes and stealth sprays that claim to make
cars "invisible to radar," photo-flash devices
designed to flash back at cameras and the high-gloss tag
"There's a lot of good people in the industry who
are honest and a lot of charlatans. But it doesn't work,
that's the bottom line," says Carl Fors, owner of the
Fort Worth company.
The bounce-back-the-flash concept does work sometimes,
he says, but only on positive images traffic cameras produce.
"If we reverse the image, go to a negative image, we
can read every letter on a license plate," he says.
Fors says the firms that make and operate radar camera
systems for municipalities routinely check negatives of
photos where license plates look unreadable. "Going
to the negative image is no big deal," he says.
PhotoBlocker's Scott concedes that adjusting the images
can "sometimes" reveal the tag numbers, but "these
companies will just throw out anything that's questionable.
They don't want to have to dispute it in court and it's
not cost-effective for them."
Richard Kosina, director of engineering at Affiliated Computer
Services, maker of most of the photo-radar cameras active
in the District, Maryland and Virginia, says magnifying
the image or adjusting brightness and contrast to make glared
or blurred plate numbers legible is easy.
But, he adds, those adjustments aren't usually necessary.
"In the case of sprays, we know they don't work . .
. and we've tested every spray that's there," he says.
Says Ray Reyer: "That's his perspective. There have
been cities and towns that have banned the spray. Illinois
just did. The reason they're doing this is because they're
losing revenue. Why else would they?"
For some law-abiding consumers, effectiveness may be a
moot point. Many jurisdictions insist that such products
are prohibited by laws that ban obstructing license plates.
Ads for such products typically include a disclaimer about
Anne Witt, director of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles,
thinks the products are "not legal in the District."
D.C. laws require that license plates be "maintained
free from foreign materials and in a clearly legible condition"
and ban the attachment of anything that obstructs any part
of the tag. The "illegible tag" fine is $50.
The District's automated red-light and speed-enforcement
programs are in full gear. Red-light cameras, now at 39
locations, have ticketed more than 450,000 drivers and collected
$27 million in fines since the program's inception in 1999,
according to the D.C. police Web site. The department's
photo-radar speeding program, using mostly mobile cameras,
has issued 993,000 tickets and collected more than $53.6
million since it began in 2001 -- including more than $10
million in 2004.
Virginia outlaws anti-laser-radar covers and any cover
that obstructs the license plate, but the law doesn't specify
clear spray coatings. However, Tim Murtaugh, spokesman for
Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, says state law bans "colored
glass, colored plastic or any other type of covering"
installed over a license plate in a way that alters or obscures.
"We believe this would apply" to the sprays, he
Scott argues that a loophole makes PhotoBlocker legal.
"The law says you cannot obstruct your license plate,"
he says. "This spray only prevents a flash camera from
taking a picture. If you look at it with the naked eye,
you can't tell it's on there."
But Scott has another point to make: Even if laws target
anti-photo sprays, police would be hard-pressed to identify
who is using them. "There is no way to identify which
plates are coated and which are not," he says.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company