More evidence supporting old adages

Here’s more proof that there’s “one born every minute” and that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public” (yes, I know I’m mixing quote sources):

A man named Monte Bowman is selling a product called Photoblocker that is designed to be sprayed on auto license plates in order to confound cameras at intersections designed to photograph the license plates of cars running red lights. Given that these devices have proliferated like weeds across the U.S. over the last few years, allowing towns to supplement their income in addition to the usual speed traps, you just knew it wouldn’t be long before some entrepreneur would come up with a product designed to thwart them, just as there is a wide variety of products designed to detect and thwart the radar and lasers that police use to measure the velocity at which autos are barrelling down the highway. The company making the product, called Phantom Plate. Naturally, there are glowing testimonials and videos of news coverage, the vast majority of which do not actually test the product themselves.

Not surprisingly, the product appears not to work in at least one careful test:

KETV spent two days with Council Bluffs police, purposely running red lights and activating the cameras to see if Photoblocker really does render the picture unreadable. Police blocked off the intersection of Seventh and Willow streets, and a police car ran the red light.

The experiment was performed again after the vehicle’s license plate was treated with Photoblocker. The station followed the instructions precisely. They say the license plate should be clean and dry, and short, even strokes should be used until the plate is saturated. Then, per instructions, the group waited until Photoblocker was dry and repeated until a glossy coating was built up. When the plate was completely dry, the police car ran the red light three more times.

It takes 24 hours for the results to be delivered from the cameras to the Council Bluffs Police Department. When the police vehicle’s images were accessed, the license plate number of 87657 were easy to read.
“Yeah, it’s crystal-clear,” said Officer Chad Meyers. “I don’t think the image has been changed one way or another.”

Meyers and a reporter looked at every picture — both before Photoblocker was applied and after. The license plate was completely readable in every shot.

The station called Phantom Plate with the results. A representative said police “are going to rig the system to make sure the product fails.”

“You were there with me,” Meyers said. “We followed the directions on the can to a T. The picture speaks for itself. It just doesn’t work.”

So, let me get this straight. Spray a clear compound onto the license plate, and supposedly it will prevent the license plate number from showing up on the photos produced by the automated cameras? Granted, not all agree that the product doesn’t work. For example, this news report listed the Phantom Plate website appears to show that it does.

So does it?

My best hypothesis about this is that whether or not this product does what it claims probably depends a lot on the conditions under which it is used. For example, if the photo is taken at night and the angle of the camera and flash are right, the clear coating of Photoblocker probably produces enough reflectivity to prevent the plate number from being identified in the subsequent photos. That’s what is shown in the pictures that show Photoblocker apparently working as advertised. However, if it’s daylight out, I’d be willing to bet that Photoblocker doesn’t work very well at all if the angle isn’t such that the sun is shining right on the plate, particularly if the camera is using no flash. In fact, if you look at the pictures on Phantom Plate’s own website, it seems to indicate that Photoblocker doesn’t work very well during the day. If you look at “Step 4” on the company’s own web page, for instance, a photo there labeled “Photoblocker and no flash” shows license plate numbers to be clearly visible.

Of course, the story points out at the end just how confident Phantom Plate is that its product works:

Phantom Plate’s response: “The product may not be 100 percent effective, but if it saves you one ticket, it’s done its job.”

OK, but it would be nice to know a little more closely what percentage of the time Photoblocker is effective. Surely the company must have that information–unless, of course, it never bothered to do careful testing under a variety of conditions using a variety of these traffic cameras. If it didn’t do such testing, then it has no basis to make any claim other than it might sometimes work. And, of course, if the product is only 50% effective, for instance, then a lot of people using the product are driving with a false sense of security. That’s not even considering the question of whether people using such a product will be more likely to run red lights or to push the limit on yellow lights in the mistaken belief that they are essentially immune from getting caught by one of these cameras.

Tellingly, the label on Photoblocker says: “Manufacturer makes no representation or warranty regarding effectiveness of this product. All sales are final.”

Such astonishing confidence in the product!

You know, if you’re going to break traffic laws, many radar detector manufacturers at least have the confidence in their product to offer no-ticket guarantees and will pay any speeding tickets a user might get while using their product. Of course, that won’t help users with the points that will go onto their drivers’ licenses, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the confidence Phantom Plate demonstrates in its product.

And how much does this product cost?


Righteous bucks for what is in essence clear, glossy lacquer with no guarantee whatsoever that it will prevent these cameras from identifying your license plate number. I’d really love to Consumer Reports do a serious analysis of this product. In the meantime, I’m happy to see that at least one reporter wasn’t willing to swallow the company’s claims without checking them out for himself.


  1. #1 Shygetz
    March 24, 2006

    I’d really love to Consumer Reports do a serious analysis of this product.

    Be careful what you wish for. That just might drive them into marketing Photoblocker as a cure for eczema or something.

  2. #2 Bruce Small
    March 24, 2006

    Ha, so now we have Airborne for license plates. It makes you feel better, but we don’t guarantee it actually works.

    Wouldn’t it be better to not run red lights in the first place? If there is a crash a ticket from a camera might be the least of your worries.

  3. #3 BronzeDog
    March 24, 2006

    I remember one of my co-workers complaining about all the speeding tickets she was getting. I replied, “Maybe it has something to do with your speeding.”

    Of course, speeding doesn’t really accomplish much, does it? All it usually means is that you get closer to the next red light than you would normally.

  4. #4 Flex
    March 24, 2006

    At a traffic court appearance many years ago, I learned that the tickets go to the driver, not the vehicle.

    This suggests that a possible defence against the traffic cameras which only snap a photo of the plate is to ask the police to prove who was driving of the vehicle. (Which I understand some red-light traffic cameras do.)

    Mind you, I’m not suggesting anyone break the law, and your insurance company may still become interested if you claim that you were not the driver. However, traffic law enforcement is not supposed to be a fund raising activity but a way to promote safe operation of vehicles on the public highways. Traffic law enforcement should require the police to provide proof of the identity of the offender, at least beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Of course, I am aware that there is a large difference between ‘should’ and ‘does’.


  5. #5 Orac
    March 24, 2006

    It’s like parking tickets, from what I understand. The ticket gets sent to the owner of the car, and I don’t know if demanding evidence to show the owner was driving the car works as a defense. It should.

  6. #6 RPM
    March 24, 2006

    I know of people who have gotten out of tickets issued for running red lights (where the only evidence is the camera) because someone else was driving the vehicle (ie, they take a picture of both the license plate and the driver — remember that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm?). For instance, the title of the car is under a woman’s name and her son ran the red light. She argued that she could not be issued a ticket for a violation committed by someone who is obviously not her. This was about 10 years ago, so ‘the man’ may have wised up to this type of excuse by now.

    I also know of someone who got out of a speeding ticket because the officer wrote down that the car was “white” when the registration listed it as “cloud”. He argued that the officer pulled over the wrong car. Greatest excuse ever.

  7. #7 DouglasG
    March 24, 2006

    The state of Minnesota’s courts ruled the use of these cameras unconstitutional for that very reason. The ticket requires the burden of proof on the driver rather than on law enforcement… IE You had to prove that you weren’t driving at the time, rather than the law enforcement individuals proving that you were driving.

  8. #8 Radi
    March 24, 2006

    I ran afoul of a traffic camera while in England (I was driving my b-i-l’s vehicle). Anyway, about two weeks later, he got a ticket in the mail. He was successfully able to fight it because he said he wasn’t driving the vehicle at the time (and he wasn’t – I was)…

  9. #9 Ian B Gibson
    March 24, 2006

    Could they get someone using this product for pre-meditated running of a red light if they were involved in an accident? I bet they could swab the licence plate..

  10. #10 Greg Baumbach
    March 24, 2006

    I think some states they have taken care of the “prove who was driving” issue. They issue the ticket directly to the owner of the vehicle. In these instances, they do not assign “points” as the driver cannot be identified, but they still get to collect the cash.

    Just goes to prove that red-light cameras are more about revenue than safety. Speaking of safety, wasn’t there a study done in the past year or so that showed accidents went UP at interections with cameras vs. those without?

  11. #11 BronzeDog
    March 24, 2006

    Speaking of safety, wasn’t there a study done in the past year or so that showed accidents went UP at interections with cameras vs. those without?

    I’d certainly like to know about that, if it exists. After all, I’m very much about safety on the road, and can’t stand unsafe drivers… With their cell-phones glued to their ears, primping themselves in their rear-view mirrors while making a left turn without signalling… We should take away their right to vote or something. I hate them, I HATE THEM, I HATE THEM!

    …But I’m not an unsafist.

  12. #12 John McKay
    March 24, 2006

    If it make license plates invisible to cameras, why can’t it make me invisible. I’ll just spray it all over myself and head down to the bank to make a “withdrawal.”

    And when the killer robots finally attack, the resistance should be well stocked with this stuff so they can become invisible to the KRs.

  13. #13 BronzeDog
    March 24, 2006

    When the robots come around, you just need to show the nearest superhero this, and all your problems will be solved.

  14. #14 Don
    March 25, 2006

    “Could they get someone using this product for pre-meditated running of a red light if they were involved in an accident? I bet they could swab the licence plate..”

    Exactly what I was thinking. Anyone blowing through a red light with this gunk on their licence plate ought to get popped with something equivalent to drunk driving or hit and run.

    Can I just ask something? What exactly is the logic in trying to get away with running red lights? If some company came up with a personal invisa-spray would these same idiots run out in public and start randomly firing off a handgun because now they can get away with it? Same thing. WTF?

    We’re a wierd society. We whine about how it’s getting harder to flagrantly endanger ourselves and others. In all the moaning about intersection cameras we conveniently ignore the effect on the odds of our killing someone by blowing a red light. I mean, people are paying money and spending time spraying their license plates instead of just not driving like homocidal maniacs?

    I do know that for myself and everyone I’ve ever asked about this, those big warning signs that identify a camera intersection definitely keep me on the safe side of a yellow light. However you slice it, that works for me.

    Anyone who really has a problem with the cameras are probably serial offenders (read: dangerous). Maybe out of sheer frustration they might just avoid those intersections altogether. If too many intersections get cameras maybe they just won’t drive anymore at all. Mission accomplished.

  15. #15 Chris Noble
    March 25, 2006

    John McKay writes:
    If it make license plates invisible to cameras, why can’t it make me invisible. I’ll just spray it all over myself and head down to the bank to make a “withdrawal.”

    Lemon juice is a natural and cheap alternative.

    Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments

    In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken .from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o’clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. “But I wore the juice,” he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras (Fuocco, 1996).

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