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How one inventor wants to fight traffic cameras with a flash back

October 25, 2012

In many American cities, traffic cameras of some variety have become a way of life, giving cash-strapped local governments a fountain of new money while leaving many motorists fuming. In Washington, D.C., red-light and speed cameras brought in $85 million in 2011; one camera alone generated $11.6 million while recording more than 112,000 tickets. Now an Ohio inventor says he's created a device to legally fight back -- although those on the other side of the law may disagree.

Red-light cameras operate in 24 states across the country, while 13 states use speed cameras to tag motorists. Safety advocates have long backed the technologies; statistics show that speeding drivers trigger a majority of all auto accidents, and red-light running has been linked to thousands of accidents as well. But while many cameras were set up as safety measures, the additional revenue -- up to $500 a ticket in some jurisdictions -- has spurred a backlash; in all, 12 states have barred speed cameras and nine states have outlawed red-light camera tickets, with dozens of cities debating the question.

Speed and red-light cameras work in part because all states make it illegal to obscure your license plate -- and there's no magic spray that keeps the plates hidden from cameras but visible all other times. Jonathan Dandrow, an Ohio tinkerer, decided to research ways to make photos taken by the cameras useless, but otherwise leave the plate visible. After two years of work in his garage, Dandrow came up with noPhoto, a license plate frame that conceals two powerful xenon light units and electronics that trigger them only when they sense a flash from the traffic camera.

The trick, according to Dandrow, was writing software that would recognize the unique flash created by a traffic camera while ignoring all other light sources. Another key hurdle was creating a burst of light bright enough that a photo couldn't be easily manipulated to reveal the numbers. In the video above, Dandrow says a prototype version responds to traffic camera strobe from over 100 feet away in broad daylight.

Dandrow calls his invention a response to drivers being "constantly monitored and watched," and that motorists shouldn't lose challenges to traffic citations "just because it happens to be (from) a camera that can't talk in court." And he maintains that because the noPhoto does not block the view of the license plate, it's legal today in most states.

But not all states. In North Carolina, police can cite motorists for installing license plate frames that "prevent or interfere with the taking of a clear photograph" of a license plate, while other states have less clearly worded restrictions on license plate frames that could be used against noPhoto. Previous challenges to red-light and speed camera enforcement has spurred state lawmakers to write new statues protecting such revenue with a quickness. And noPhoto may raise more concerns if it's proven effective against cameras meant to catch toll-road freeloaders.

Dandrow's device also raises concerns of safety advocates. "There is a simple solution for not receiving red light and speeding tickets — stop running red lights and stop speeding," said David Kelly, former chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the head of the National Coalition for Safer Roads, a group supported in part by photo enforcement firms. "Instead of driving safely, scofflaws continue to recklessly put others in danger."

Dandrow is still raising money to develop his invention, which he plans to sell for $350 a copy, a price that could keep it from being a widespread countermeasure. If it does catch on, Dandrow will find himself under a different kind of spotlight -- with cities around the country chasing money they expected in their accounts, not his.