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Fuzzing up the policing picture
A license-plate spray thwarts cameras set up to catch drivers running red lights.
But what of safety -- and the law?
By Jeanne Wright, Special to The Times - Jan 5 2005
A product that hides license plates from traffic-enforcement cameras at intersections may appeal to those frustrated by malfunctioning cameras but poses a major safety threat from those who hope to use it to slip through red lights.
For $30 a can, Photoblocker sprays on a high-gloss permanent reflective finish on a license plate.
"The glossy surface acts as a mirror to reflect a photo-radar flash back to the camera, overexposing the image," says Joe Scott, marketing director at PhantomPlate Inc., maker of the spray. As a result, the plate is unreadable and the driver avoids an expensive citation, usually in the hundreds of dollars.
Whether it's legal or not in California is unclear. LAPD spokesman Jack Richter says any product that makes a license plate unreadable is illegal. But CHP spokesman Tom Marshall says there has been no definitive ruling. "It's a sticky issue" that will have to be litigated or legislated, he says.
Legal or not, the product is sure to become a hot issue.
"I shouldn't be surprised that someone has come up with a product that actually helps people evade red-light cameras, ostensibly encouraging them to run red lights," says Candysse Miller, executive director of the Insurance Information Network of California.
"Why would anyone with a conscience encourage people to run red lights?" she asks. "What's next? A product to block security cameras at the corner 7-Eleven?"
The unnerving beauty of this product is that, according to its makers, there is no way you can spot a license plate that has been sprayed with the solution. Unlike covers that completely conceal the plate number and are illegal, the spray is invisible to the naked eye. Only the red-light camera would find the plate unreadable, Scott says.
The executive denies that his company's product encourages reckless driving. "We do not condone speeding or running red lights," he says. He argues that the spray is legal and that most drivers caught by the cameras did not intend to run the light. Domestic and international sales of Photoblocker have reached more than 250,000, he says.
It certainly doesn't take a rocket scientist to know how dangerous it is to blast through red lights with impunity. Police and others who see the carnage firsthand understand how serious a threat red-light runners are to others.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 1,000 people a year are killed and 50,000 injured in accidents involving running red lights. From 1999 to 2003, there were 4,846 fatal red-light-running crashes, with 5,340 deaths.
"Red-light running is unpardonable. It's right behind drunk driving, speed and lack of seat belt use in lives lost needlessly," says Harry Teter, executive director of the American Trauma Society. "People are in such a hurry, they are willing to take dangerous and unnecessary risks."
Do Photoblocker and similar products work? It depends on the type of traffic enforcement camera and how it's positioned, according to LAPD Sgt. Steven Foster, who heads the department's automated camera enforcement program.
So far, Foster says, the LAPD has not seen a rash of intersection photos with blocked-out license plates. "We see some occasional blurring," he says.
Motorists who oppose red-light-camera enforcement view it as intrusive. They often point to cases where drivers have been wrongly ticketed because of equipment malfunctions or human errors. Critics of red-light cameras contend cities install the cameras primarily to generate revenues.
"It's all about the revenues, not safety," Scott says. "Law-abiding citizens are being ticketed unjustly."
But the LAPD's Richter says he's appalled that a product would allow people to run red lights without being punished. People who are spending money on a spray to hide their license plate numbers "are going through a lot of effort to break the law. Why don't they save themselves the money and drive safely?"
Meanwhile, Scott says sales of Photoblocker skyrocketed during the holiday season.
"It's the perfect gift. It's permanent. It will last a lifetime," he says.
Of course if you're in the habit of running red lights, your life expectancy may not be all that long.
Jeanne Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.