Cameras click it, but wow, no ticket
If you inspected Will Foreman's SUV, you might notice how clean and shiny his Maryland license plates are. But you probably wouldn't detect the clear glossy coating he sprayed on them eight months ago to thwart traffic cameras from snapping readable photos of his tags.
"It must work," says Foreman. The owner of Eastover Auto Supply in Oxon Hill, Md., has not received a traffic camera ticket since using a $29.99 spray called PhotoBlocker.
As jurisdictions increasingly turn to automated red-light and speed-radar cameras, products promising consumers stealth protection have multiplied (a bill making such cameras legal has passed the Indiana Senate several times, but not in the House). Dozens of such products are on the market. In addition to the products' effectiveness, their use raises legal and ethical questions for consumers.
Cheaper than radar detectors, sprays such as PhotoBlocker, Photo Fog ($24) and PhotoStopper ($19.99) 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. The License Plate Loover ($8.95) blocks the camera's view with an angled louver effect.
These products sell mostly online, although some have found their way to auto parts stores. PhotoBlocker, for instance, is sold at PhantomPlate.com.
Joe Scott, marketing director for PhantomPlate, the Alexandria, Va., 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," he says.
The big questions are: Do these products work, and are they legal?
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, but plate covers less so. Similar results were found by TV news programs in Britain, Australia and Sweden.
Despite the tests, there's little consensus about effectiveness.
Ray "Radar Roy" Reyer, whose online firm Radarbuster.com sells Photo Fog and PhotoStopper, says roadside and weather conditions and camera angles can affect clarity. And the "flash-back" sprays have no effect against digital cameras that don't flash.
"We would safely estimate 75 percent effectiveness," says Reyer, a retired 20-year veteran of the Maricopa County, Ariz., police department who markets mostly radar detectors.
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.
"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 and analyze the photos for municipalities routinely check negatives 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."
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 their legality.
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.