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 Maryland 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 PhotoBlocker.
Foreman, owner of Eastover Auto Supply in Oxon Hill, 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, 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 Super Protector ($28.00) uses reflective lens embedded in clear plastic.
These products sell mostly online, although some have found their way to auto parts stores.
"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 in Hyattsville. "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, only less."
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, plate covers less so. Similar results were found by TV news programs in Great Britain, Australia and Sweden.
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.
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, like the ones Howard County recently began installing.
"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 that claim to make cars "invisible to radar," photo-flash devices designed to flash back at cameras and the high-gloss tag 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."
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 Roy 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 their legality.
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 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 says.
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."
Maryland's law is more specific, prohibiting "use, advertising and sale of license plate covers that distort a recorded image of any of the characters of a vehicle's registration plate recorded by a traffic control signal monitoring system."
Says Kevin Enright, spokesman for Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.: "There is no question that using these products is illegal under Maryland motor vehicle laws."
John Carr, who has maintained a "State Traffic and Speed Law" Web site since 1997, says many states also have "very broad laws" about interfering with police.
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.