Drivers Try an Anti-Photo Finish
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 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 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 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."
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," 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."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company