Skepticism/critical thinking

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.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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