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CYCLE OF RAGE: Even Cheap Souvenir Plates Fool NYC Speed Cameras — And Piss Off an Out-of-Town Man

You don't have to be SEXY to fool New York City speed cameras. You just have to pretend to be.

Photos: Gersh Kuntzman|

You can get these seemingly real metal novelty plates three for $20 in most souvenir shops.

New York. Concrete jungle where plates are made up
There's no one you can't fool
When you're in New York, New York.

You don't have to be SEXY to fool New York City speed cameras. You just have to pretend to be.

It turns out that those novelty New York license plates you can get for $20 for three at virtually every storefront on Canal Street and in Times Square aren't just a great gift for your relatives in Iowa — they allow you to speed with impunity and never get caught.

I found this out the other day when an out-of-town man emailed me after hearing me on NPR talking about my fight against covered and defaced plates. He had a doozy for me: Believe it or not, he owns an ancient blue Volvo V70 that has the totally legitimate New York State vanity plate, "NEW YORK."

I checked — it's real (in fact, he has a website that tells the whole story). Despite that fact that the out-of-towner has the real plate, his Volvo's authentic metal rectangle looks exactly like the absolutely inauthentic, metal, dimensionally accurate one that I bought on Canal Street for $7:

The only difference between the out-of-town guy's real NEW YORK plate and the one above is that the fake one has the New York State silhouette (which, ironically, makes the fake look more real than the real one).

These plates — kitschy novelties or customizable with whatever words you want — are also available on Amazon for just a few bucks. You don't even have to go to Chinatown, Jack.

The out-of-town guy who owns the real one told me his car has never been in New York City. Yet when I ran the plate through the city ticket database via the easy-to-use Howsmydriving website, I discovered that the novelty NEW YORK plate has racked up 192 tickets, including 37 camera-issued speeding tickets, seven camera-issued red-light tickets and two camera-issued bus lane violations.

Funny thing, though: From 2013 (pre-speed cameras) to date, this fake plate also fooled actual human traffic enforcement agents and police officers 146 times! Even more hilarious: enforcement agents wrote up cars with this fake plate 31 times for missing a plate (that should have been a tip off!), 97 times for having either a missing or expired registration, and a handful of other times for violations that should have alerted the traffic enforcement agents and cops that they simply needed to stop what they were doing and call in a tow truck or a booting agent.

But let's get back to those 44 camera-issued red-light and speeding tickets. Under state law, a human being at the Department of Transportation must review every single camera infraction so that it can hold up in court (remember, we all have the right to face our accuser, which can't be a machine).

Well, humans are really flawed, it turns out!

The out-of-town guy with the blue Volvo sent me page after page of violation notices that the city sent to him instead of the person with the fake NEW YORK plate (which won't show up in any database because ... it's fake!). Here's one he received earlier this year even though the picture clearly shows that the speeding vehicle was a moped, not an old Volvo wagon:

Here's another from a different moped in January:

And here's one where the scofflaw on yet another moped appears to be giving the finger to the city speed camera.

I'm not kidding. The finger!

The out-of-town guy's tickets are routinely dismissed because they're clearly not legit, but that's not the point. The point is, just as congestion pricing is about to start, there's an entirely new front in the war on fake plates and ghost cars ... and the city of New York is outmanned, outgunned, outnumbered and out-planned (as Lin-Manuel Miranda might say).

It's not just the "NEW YORK" plate that is causing havoc for city cameras (and, presumably, for the drivers who own the real versions of these plates). I spotted these camera-tricking novelties all over the city:

If you look at the patterns of violations, most of the plates above were written up by human beings for parking tickets for years until about 2020, when these same fake plates mysteriously started getting camera tickets.

I asked DOT about it. Spokeswoman Mona Bruno first touted what a great system the city has.

“Our automated enforcement cameras save lives and effectively change driver behavior, with speed camera violations declining 30 percent on average after one year of 24/7 enforcement," she said.

She added that "it is extremely rare for a ticket to be issued to a novelty plate that is registered to a different vehicle thanks to a thorough violation review process.” (It's rare because the DOT picture reviewer is supposed to match up the plate in the photo to the state DMV database and only issue a ticket if the vehicle in the picture matches the vehicle in the DMV database. But, alas, mistakes are made.)

Those mistakes probably are rare, but they're still hilarious ... and alarming — especially because at one point last year, the DOT admitted that its cameras couldn't read the plates on more than 7 percent of the cars that were speeding or running reds, as Streetsblog reported.

Oddly, some fake metal plates haven't racked up any (or very few) camera tickets, which means the DOT camera-review system isn't completely broken:

But that means hundreds of parking tickets are being issued by real live humans on the streets of the city ... which means these fake metal souvenir plates are pretty damn solid.

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