Print and Web Reviews

License covers could cancel out red-light cameras

Wilmington considers outlawing plate-obscuring devices sold on the Internet

Staff reporter

The courtroom is not the only place motorists can try to beat Wilmington’s red-light cameras.

They also can go to the Internet, where companies sell a spray and plastic covers designed to prevent the cameras from clearly capturing the letters and numbers on license plates as drivers zip through red lights.

City and state officials said the products could become an effective counter to the high-tech cameras. There is no city law that prohibits their use, and there is nothing on the state books to ban them, either.

“Technology is ahead of us,” Delaware Deputy Attorney General Jim Hanley said.

That is good news to John Brown, a 76-year-old Wilmington resident who recently lost his appeal of a $75 ticket issued after one of the cameras caught him. Brown said he thinks the city installed the devices simply to make money.

He said he was unaware of the new products, but “they sound great.”

There are 10 cameras in Wilmington and 10 more will be installed soon. Twenty additional cameras will be installed across Delaware next year, said Albert Guckes, an aide to state Transportation Secretary Nathan Hayward III.

More than 40,000 people in Wilmington have been ticketed by the cameras in 18 months. If motorists speed to buy the spray and plate covers, city officials said, they will floor it to City Hall to outlaw the products.

Councilman Gerald L. Brady said officials from Affiliated Computer Services Inc., the company that operates the cameras for the city, have told him that the products could pose a problem.

“It’s something that we are tracking,” he said. “I would introduce a bill to ban anything that would obscure the camera’s view and impede the judicial process.”

Wilmington Communications Director John Rago said there is no evidence that any photographs have been blurred by motorists who have used the products. Joe Scott, the owner of Phantom Plate, said purchases by Delawareans from the Harrisburg, Pa., company’s Web site have been brisk, but he would not provide sales figures.

The cameras are connected to underground sensors at the stop lights of the intersections. The sensor activates when a vehicle approaches at a high rate of speed when the light is red. Pictures of the vehicle are taken before it goes through the intersection and after it goes through the red light.

Phantom Plate’s technology is simpler, Scott said. The $19.99 Photo Blocker spray is a high-gloss material that makes a glare when the light hits it, blocking the plate’s tag numbers in the photograph. The $25 and $26.99 plate covers have magnifying lenses that send light away from the plates and the cameras, which blurs the pictures. The plates remain visible to the naked eye, said Scott, who started his company six years ago.

“People are sick and tired of these cameras,” he said. “But we don’t condone anybody running red lights. It’s like Porsche, which makes a car to go 200 mph but is not responsible for people driving that fast.”

Jeff Agnew, the spokesman for the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, an advocacy group that gets money from companies that make and operate red-light camera equipment, said the products hurt public safety.

“We think this can undermine the deterrent effect of these life-saving technologies,” he said.

Wilmington, which splits part of the proceeds from the tickets with Affiliated Computer Services, made $522,000 in the program’s first year. But Rago said the cameras’ primary mission is to save lives, and he thinks they are working. The cameras, which were placed at the most dangerous intersections in the city, capture an average 60 percent fewer violators now than when the program began.

Affiliated Computer Services is competing to run the 20 cameras outside Wilmington. Scott Kidner, a lobbyist for the company in Dover, said Delaware’s motorists will determine whether city and state laws would be needed to ban the products.

“It’s a little too early to tell,” he said. “If we see an explosion of these products and a problem with prosecuting people pops up, I can foresee a legislative fix.”

Whitney Hoffman of Bear was ticketed twice in Wilmington, but both cases were thrown out because of administrative problems in the program’s first months. She said an officer would not have cited her for running the lights by one-tenth of a second, which is what the cameras did. But she said she would not purchase the new products.

“This should be about justice and fair play,” she said. “I don’t think the cameras represent that, but I don’t feel the need to buy those things. I’m just extra careful where I know the cameras are.”

Reach Adam Taylor at 324-2787 or