Traffic jam in Moscow
Traffic jam in Moscow
Ivan Buranov

MOSCOW — Since the first traffic camera was installed in Moscow in 2008, a new kind of traffic violation has been born — license-plate camouflage. The cameras capture license plate numbers, which is how drivers who break traffic laws are identified. Tickets are then sent by mail. More than 60% of traffic tickets are now issued like this — which means that if you can hide your plate number, you can beat the system.

The first attempts to hide license plate numbers were primitive. People used paper or, more often, dirt and snow. That prompted fines for dirty plates to rise by a factor of five, and the punishment for covering your plates with material could include a license suspension.

The authors of the new traffic rules expected that these punishments would prevent people from covering their plates, but the number of people hiding them has in fact soared. The thing is, the fines for the things that cameras are supposed to catch — speeding, driving in bus-only lanes or parking illegally — also rose substantially. It seems that people made a calculation: The potential punishment for hiding their license plates wasn’t enough of a deterrent. They took their chances, hoping that camouflaging their plates would allow them to break other traffic laws without punishment.

Which isn’t to say that license-plate covering isn’t punished. Since last June, Moscow traffic police have given around 3,000 tickets for covered plates. “The official statistics are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Vyacheslav Lisakov, a representative of Russia’s Duma, or assembly, who heads the Committee for Construction. “I think that around 30% of violations are given tickets, and more and more people are doing it — especially in Moscow.”

Moscow is Russia’s leader in video surveillance cameras, with more than 700 around the city. It is also the only Russian city with paid parking, which many residents have protested against, and the parking is monitored by mobile cameras mounted in patrol cars. Moscow also has a well-used system of bus lanes that are policed by cameras.

Even enforcers break the law

Experts say that the problem is getting increasingly worse. Even those who are supposed to be defending the law are breaking it: Every day, there are cars with hidden plates parked at the prosecutor’s and other government buildings. There have been at least three highly publicized instances when drivers of patrol cars with mobile cameras have parked in no-parking areas and then covered up their license plates.

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In Moscow — Photo: Francisco Anzola

The Moscow police have explained that they are preparing to test several different kinds of traffic cameras that are supposed to be able to see through camouflage techniques. Regardless, experts say that the government is losing the battle against traffic violators — at least for now. “There’s a feeling of anything goes. Everyone drives illegally,” says Lisakov.

Some people think that the government is actually pushing people to drive illegally. Others believe that the police are simply not up to the task of enforcing traffic rules. As of now, no legislative changes have been successful in curbing the illegal driving practices of Muscovites.

Moscow’s attempt to substantially raise the fines for covered license plates were thwarted when the Russian Supreme Court ruled the efforts unconstitutional, leaving the fine at around $20. Regional authorities also hurried to add that the fine has rarely been levied, because a new kind a vandal has appeared: One who goes around parking lots covering plate numbers. The innocent drivers would then get a ticket.

The transportation department came up with a novel idea: Inspectors could patrol the streets and remove plate coverings from cars. The problem is that the department only has 70 inspectors, and they only work in the city center.

And there’s yet another hole in camera system that authorities need to fix: Cars that come from abroad and have foreign license plates are not in the system at all, which means the driver of a car with a foreign license plate can do just about anything without fear of being caught. The police have a plan to require all foreign cars to register at the border, and those who are caught on camera would be required to pay the fine upon leaving the country or they would not be allowed back in to Russia. But it’s still unclear when this plan might be put into place, or how effective it would be.

Even Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has weighed in on the issue, ordering the police to work with the telecommunication ministry to develop a radio chip to be embedded in new license plates — which would allow police to gather information about cars without stopping the drivers. Another question would be how to get the chips into Russia's 50 million vehicles. It’s possible that by the time that is figured out, clever drivers would have found a new way to trick that technology as well.

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