Highway hustles

Editorial Notebook

January 24, 2004|By Peter Jensen

"MAKE YOUR License Plate Invisible."

It sounds like a come-on for armed robbers. "Hey, Mac, next time you rob a bank, wouldn't it be great if the cops couldn't see your tags?"

But no, the newspaper advertisement has an even more cunning pitch: For $29.95, an "anti-flash spray" allegedly makes your license plate unreadable to red-light and speed cameras. The concept is simple: a shiny covering creates too much glare for the camera. Ever take a flash photo in front of a window? You get the same results -- a big white spot.

As it happens, the use of this product is illegal in Maryland. Cover your license plate or do anything to distort the image recorded by a "traffic control monitoring system" and you've just committed a misdemeanor (Section 13-411.1 of the Maryland Code; you can look it up) subject to a $55 fine. Admittedly, it may never be enforced in this particular instance since the spray is apparently undetectable in normal light. (Disclosure: The Sun was among the papers that ran this ad, until learning about the state law.)

But forget all that. Legal or not, the product has only one purpose -- to help people avoid getting caught running a red light (or for speeding, but not in Maryland where speed enforcement cameras are banned).

Funny, but you don't see burglary tools so openly touted. Or counterfeit money. Or check-kiting techniques. But somehow, breaking traffic laws seems different. It's not so ... well, bad.

How many people look at an ad like that and their first thought isn't to be appalled, it's this: Whoa, wouldn't that be great if it really worked? Here's a guess -- how about 99 percent?

How else can you explain our easy acceptance of radar detectors (outlawed in only a handful of states)? Of people who flash their lights at fellow motorists to warn of speed traps? Oh, and here's a good one -- the latest gizmo that allows motorists to turn red lights green (by emitting a signal used by fire engines and ambulances) is openly sold on the Internet.

The company marketing the hide-your-plate spray has a simple justification: Red-light cameras are there to trap people and make money for local governments. Naturally, the marketers don't have much to say about traffic accidents, about how running red lights gets pedestrians killed or how speeding is a major factor in fatal collisions. Not to mention the fact that squeezing money out of law-breakers can reduce taxes for everybody.

But forget them. The world is filled with ethically-challenged profiteers. What does it say about us that we're so sympathetic to the idea -- even when we know that running red lights and speeding aren't just bad behaviors, they're potentially deadly?

Traffic safety experts say this is a classic problem with drivers. People know they shouldn't run red lights, but they're not all that outraged about it. Thus, they feel it's OK to cheat a little bit.

A generation ago, that's how people felt about drunken driving. Our outlook changed over time -- not because drunken driving laws were stiffened, but because of efforts by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other, we got better educated about the consequences of drinking and driving. We became less tolerant. Tougher laws were just an outgrowth of that.

The fact is, our roads are far more dangerous than anything terrorists have devised so far. And yet this risk means so little to us. Traffic enforcement strikes us as a game, a hustle, an annoyance. Here's a little reminder: About 40,000 people die each year in crashes. Let's require that fact to be printed on cans of anti-flash spray. Maybe then we'll wise up.

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