City Begins Long Process of Making it Harder to Evade Speed Cameras

Plate covers remained on sale at this Advance Auto Parts store in Brooklyn. Photos: Gersh Kuntzman
Plate covers remained on sale at this Advance Auto Parts store in Brooklyn. Photos: Gersh Kuntzman

Mission accomplished (well, sort of).

A day after city officials congratulated themselves for sending warning letters to two major auto parts retailers, illegal plate covers disappeared — or mostly disappeared — from the stores’ shelves, Streetsblog found — though scores of online vendors are still selling the most egregious obscurers, and even one of the warned sellers was still hawking an illegal cover.

At an Advance Auto Parts on Atlantic Avenue in East New York, Streetsblog was able to obtain a smokey grey plate cover — illegal under section 402 of the New York State vehicle and traffic law — even though Advanced was one of the two retailers who received letters from the city Law Department in mid-February. The letters to Advanced and Auto Zone were shared with reporters only on March 17.

This is illegal — to use or to sell. Yet we picked one up at an Advance Auto Parts store in Brooklyn.
This is illegal — to use or to sell. Yet we picked one up at an Advance Auto Parts store in Brooklyn.

The letters warned the parts superstores that city Local Law 22 of 2022 made it illegal “to sell, offer for sale or distribute any artificial or synthetic material or substance for the purpose of concealing or obscuring the number on a license plate or distorting a recorded or photographic image of such license plate.”

The shelves at an AutoZone location on Atlantic Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens, had been completely stripped of all license plate covers, even clear ones. But the Advance location still stocked the “Ultimate Tuf Combo,” a plate cover that may not be opaque enough to help its user evade speed cameras, but is still illegal. The back of the package describes the obscuring layer as the “shield” — the only suggestion that it will help a driver avoid detection.

The city cease-and-desist letters are part of a nascent effort to tackle a growing problem, documented repeatedly by Streetsblog over the past four months through a series of online videos as well as reporting in February that documented just how widespread the problem of defaced or obscured plates is for safety and summons writing.

Last August, when city speed cameras began operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, driver efforts to avoid those cameras rose dramatically — with more than 7 percent of plates unable to be read, according to the city’s own data. The percentage declined a bit by the end of the year, but nearly 5 percent of plates were still unreadable.

The letters to Auto Zone and Advance offer the two main ramifications of the plate-defacement crisis:

“The [NYPD] has since March 2022 associated unreadable license plates with instances of traffic violence and crime, enabling reckless drivers to evade approximately 1.5 million speed and red-light camera enforcement actions,” said the letters, one of which can be read here. “Traffic deaths on city streets during this [period] surged nearly 22 percent, with traffic fatalities at their highest since 2014.

The 1.5 million evaded cameras appears to be even more than previously released data. Each ticket is $50, so if true, the loss to the city in just one year has been $75 million — a figure cited in Assistant Corporation Counsel Eric Proshansky’s letter.

At the Auto Zone, a clerk told Streetsblog that the store pulled all the plate covers from the shelves last week.

“They’re illegal,” he said, though they were illegal before the city sent its letters.

At the Advance store, a worker told Streetsblog that the store had additional stock of plate covers that were even more likely to block speed cameras, but would not sell such a cover to a customer with a New York State plate, leaving the smokey cover as the customer’s only option. It is unclear what would have happened if the reporter had lied that he had an out-of-state plate (full disclosure: the reporter does not have a plate at all).

Meanwhile, the most cursory search for “license plate covers” in an online shopping database reveals that illegal accessories remain widely available at the touch of a few keystrokes.

At Phantom Tag Protector, an “Anti Photo License Plate Cover & Black Frame w/Bolt Caps” costs $79.99 (free shipping), which at that price would more than pay for itself with just two avoided camera-issued tickets.

For sale.
For sale.

“Our 2019 2nd Generation Anti Photo License Plate Covers are the most advanced anti photo speeding camera red light protective covers available,” the website claims. “These latest anti photo Phantom Tag Protectors are equipped with twice the protective capability of our previous models. Unlike our previous models made with a single anti photo lens, these 2nd generation models are manufactured with four individual pieces of anti photo lens, which simultaneously, and independently work to maximize protection.”

At the online retailer Scamera, whose name is a portmanteau of “scam” and “camera,” the “Scamera Distorter Combo” is just $35.99 and promises a “next-generation lens that keeps the violation issuing cameras off your back.”

Many covers are also still available at Amazon, though in August, city officials had said that the online retailer Amazon had promised to “proactively search for and restrict the sale of smokescreen license plate covers and tinted license plate covers to customers with a New York state address.”

The city press release also stated that “Amazon has also agreed to automatically display electronic notices stating that a given item cannot be shipped to New York locations — before one of these products can even be added to a customer’s online shopping cart.”

That effort does appear to be working. On Amazon, a warning message tells New York State customers, “This item cannot be shipped to your selected delivery location.” But then it helpfully adds, “Please choose a different delivery location.”

When a Streetsblog reader used his brother’s address just over the border in Connecticut, the message changes to “FREE delivery Sunday, March 26 if you spend $25 on items shipped by Amazon.”

Sometimes the crimes against city speed cameras are coming from city employees: