Licence plate spray clearly making money
Effective or not, invisibility promise attacting buyers
Steven Edwards
CanWest News Service

NEW YORK - The Canadian distributors of PhotoBlocker, a transparent spray billed as making licence plates invisible to traffic cameras, are hoping to cash in on new wrangling over its effectiveness.

A New York politician is so convinced the product helps drivers run red lights with impunity, he has tabled legislation in the state assembly to ban it.

Peter Rivera, a Democrat from the Bronx, says the loss of revenue could top US$1-million a year, money that could be re-invested in traffic safety.

"I believe [the spray] works. I was [shown] pictures and we've seen that it works," he said. "There is a blurring ... after you use this stuff."

But his campaign has sparked more publicity for PhotoBlocker, launched in 2001 by PhantomPlate of Harrisburg, Penn.

"When people read that an assemblyman says, 'Yes, we're losing money,' then the product becomes much more in demand," said Joe Scott, a company spokesman.

PhotoBlocker acts like a mirror when a flash-assisted camera snaps a coated licence plate, says the manufacturer. The aim is to white out the plate, making it impossible for authorities to identify the vehicle. But since PhotoBlocker is also clear, the licence plate can be read normally, which jurisdictions require by law.

Mr. Scott says the company has sold 500,000 cans worldwide.

"The key to our success is we have been independently tested by the Denver Police Department, by Dutch and South African police departments, and by Swedish and Australian TV," he said.

Canadian dealers say sales remain steady as they mimic their U.S. counterparts in citing the favourable test results.

"Sales spike when they start talking about legislation to bring in more cameras," said Matthew Haistc, 30, of Calgary.

Another Calgary-based dealer Warren Wiberg, 43, also said he is tapping into driver frustration.

"I don't condone breaking the law, but there are people getting $260 tickets when they're trying to get to work," he said.

"They're going through a sluggish intersection with snow or sleet on the ground, and these machines -- it's been documented -- have lowered their yellow-light times to generate more revenue."

Canadian officials say they post signs warning motorists cameras may be present.

"Unless you can find some backwoods place in the Southern states -- Dukes of Hazzard-type stuff -- that would [shorten yellow lights], highway safety is the paramount interest of any recognized law-enforcement agency," said Sergeant Brian Bowman of the Toronto Police Service traffic services division. The cameras are "not out there to trick people."

Along with other Canadian police officials, he is skeptical about the spray's effectiveness.

"It's snake oil," he said, citing evidence presented at traffic control seminars for police in Ontario showing how the spray can be rendered ineffective.

Calgary police tested the spray in 2001, and Sergeant Clive Marsh of the department's Specialized Traffic Enforcement section personally retested it last year.

"I took one of my police vehicles and sprayed the plate according to the directions, giving it a couple of extra coats," he said. "Overall, we found that the plates were actually enhanced."

Mr. Haist, who believes he was Canada's first dealer, says he has sold 2,500 cans in the last two years, while. Mr. Wiberg began selling the product just a few weeks ago. Both operate from Web sites where a can costs just under $30.

"I tested the product with friends," said Mr. Haist. "We were careful, but we ran red lights at intersections with cameras, and we did not get tickets."

Officials say illegible licence plates show up on anything from 10% to 40% of photos, with snow, dirt or turning vehicles accounting for most of the failure.

"If there were photos turning up blurred in large numbers, that would look quite different, but we haven't noticed that," said Les Kelman, director of the Toronto Traffic Management Centre, which helps oversee traffic-light cameras in several Ontario cities.

In British Columbia, PhotoBlocker doesn't work because cameras take photos from an angle.

"They are set like that because we have highly reflective licence plates," said RCMP Corporal Lloyd Holtzman of the Traffic Services Unit.

Officials operating Ontario's toll 407 highway say their cameras can't be fooled by the spray because they don't use flashes, but a continuous light.

"Flash cameras are just too costly to maintain because the bulbs burn out," said spokesman Dale Albers. "So you'll still be getting your bill in the mail."

© National Post 2006

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