Tuesday, Sep 18, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Plastic covers, license plate sprays latest tools to thwart red-light photos


A traffic camera stands sentinel on the Anthony Wayne Trail at Western Avenue.


With more communities installing traffic cameras to catch drivers who run red lights and speed - Cleveland is among the latest to join Toledo and Northwood - some motorists are taking steps to make their license plates more difficult to read.

The most common tactic: installing tinted plastic covers that ostensibly keep plates clean but are dark enough to prevent easy viewing. The covers also are designed to reflect light in ways that make photographing them difficult.

But police have a warning for motorists who think they have outfoxed the law.

License plate covers that are obviously tinted or make viewing difficult violate an Ohio law requiring motorists to display their plates without obstruction.

"If a police officer pulls up behind you and can't read your plate, you're subject to being pulled over and ticketed," said Lt. Kevin Keel, head of the Toledo police traffic section.

Police wrote 70 tickets for obstructed plates last year, he said.

Less clear is the legality of a spray that a Washington company has begun marketing, primarily on the Internet, to motorists who drive in areas with traffic-light cameras.

While the spray allows clear vision of the license plate number, the spray creates a coating that the manufacturer claims makes license plates so shiny that the light from traffic-camera flashes will overexpose or white out the resulting image.

"We have sold about 19,000 units in Ohio," said Joe Scott, a spokesman for Phantom Plate Inc. The company makes Photo Blocker spray along with plastic plate covers that use embedded, light-refracting crystals intended to make plates unreadable from roadside angles.

The company has one dealer in the Toledo area, but most of its sales have been coming from the Cleveland and Akron areas, he said.

Fred Stratmann, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, said if a law-enforcement officer determines that a motorist has sprayed a substance on license plates "for the expressed purpose of spoofing a traffic camera," the motorist could be cited for plate obstruction.

But he conceded that if a coating or covering can render a photograph unreadable but not present a problem for the human eye, law enforcement would have a difficult time identifying vehicles with unreadable plates from the pictures.

According to the Ohio Revised Code, license plates "shall not be covered by any material that obstructs their visibility."

Traffic cameras in Michigan are only allowed for railroad crossing enforcement and no such cameras have been installed. Officials there say the photographic properties of a license plate that may have been sprayed with a special coating has yet to become an issue.

The Michigan Vehicle Code states that license plates must "be maintained free from foreign materials that obscure or partially obscure the registration information, and in a clearly legible condition" and forbidding motorists to "attach a name plate, insignia, or advertising device to a motor vehicle registration plate in a manner which obscures or partially obscures the registration information."

The legality of plastic license-plate covers depends on a police officer's "judgment call whether anything obscures or partially obscures the information" on the plate, said Sgt. Lance Cook, a spokesman for the Michigan State Police Traffic Services Section.

If Michigan were to allow speed or red-light cameras, the sergeant said, the section of Michigan's traffic code governing display of plates might be amended to require plates be camera-readable.

But first, the state legislature will have to overcome a negative perception that traffic cameras are strictly a revenue grab without an appreciable safety benefit.

Phantom Plate maintains that its spray product fits through a loophole in most states' license-plate laws, which forbid plate obstructions but don't address whether plates must be readable by anything other than a human eye.

Mr. Scott said one can of Photo Blocker coats three to four U.S.-sized license plates with a shiny material that, when lit up by a camera flash, causes the image to overexpose. One application should last for the life of a license plate, he said, though the company recommends customers also purchase one of its plastic covers to improve durability.

The company's promotional materials for Photo Blocker cite a test done in Denver and a complaint rate of one-quarter of 1 percent of its customers as proof that its products work.

But if Photo Blocker has compromised the effectiveness of red-light and speed cameras in Toledo and Northwood, neither those cities' police departments nor the contractor that manages their cameras is saying so.

"I really think the public is being sold a bill of goods" with the anti-camera sprays, Lieutenant Keel said.

Out of 27,640 photos taken last year by cameras at Toledo intersections, he said, 1,544 were voided because of license-plate obstructions. But that figure includes mud, snow, trailer hitches, and, sometimes, even Fraternal Order of Police decals. The lieutenant said he or other officers review many of the unreadable photos and have seen none which glare or distortion was a factor.

Northwood Police Chief Joseph Herman said while 92 violations picked up by Northwood's cameras during December were voided because of license-plate obstructions, he was not aware of any being because of glare or distortion.

"That hasn't been an issue," Chief Herman said. If the shiny spray indeed works as advertised, he conceded, "I guess you get a break on your ticket."

An official with Redflex Traffic Systems in Scottsdale, Ariz., which manufactures the traffic cameras used by Toledo and many other communities, downplayed the security a motorist can expect from license plate covers or sprays.

"We can generally see through the plastic covers," said Karen Finley, the president and chief executive officer of Redflex. "What we've found with the spray is, it kind of cleans up the plate and makes it read a little better."

"That's what they always say," Mr. Scott of Phantom Plate said when contacted by The Blade. "They don't want to admit that a $29.95 [spray] can defeat their multimillion-dollar camera systems."

In Ohio, plastic license-plate covers apparently are not limited to motorists trying to confuse red-light or speed cameras. Some who have been issued special yellow license plates with red letters because of intoxicated-driving convictions have installed tinted plastic covers over them to mute or change the color. A light-blue cover, for example, turns the yellow to a light green.

Lieutenant Keel and Mr. Stratmann both said that practice is illegal too.

Mr. Stratmann said a tinted cover could make police unable to determine if a vehicle is displaying the current color-coded registration sticker.

"If you change the color of your plate, you can be cited," the lieutenant said.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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