A selection of licence plate covers at Canadian Tire store at Eglinton Ave. E. and Laird Dr.A selection of licence plate covers at Canadian Tire store at Eglinton Ave. E. and Laird Dr.

‘Anything on a plate, any plate cover, is illegal,’ police say, as number of obscured plates caught by red light and speeding cameras soars. But you can still buy tinted covers at Canadian Tire and on Amazon.

In the spring of 2021, stuck inside and unable to work, Kifayatullah Khalil decided to launch an Amazon store out of his Brampton home. Driving around the GTA that year, Khalil had noticed more and more cars with what looked like hard, plastic covers on their licence plates. He liked the way they looked, and he figured there was probably a market there. So in June of 2021, he incorporated his own company, ordered 150 tinted plate covers from China and listed them for sale online.

With that act, Khalil became one tiny part of a growing and increasingly controversial industry in Ontario. Licence plate covers are legal to sell in this province. You can buy them from Amazon, eBay and Canadian Tire (or from Khalil). But they aren’t legal to use on the street anywhere in Ontario, according to the Toronto Police Service.

“Long story short, anything on a plate, any plate cover, is illegal,” said Toronto Police Const. Sean Shapiro, who works in traffic safety.

There’s a good reason for that. Licence plate covers can make it harder for police to identify a vehicle, Shapiro said. They can also prevent red light and speed cameras from getting an accurate read on a plate — a soaring problem in Toronto, where automated enforcement is a key part of a broader strategy meant to influence driver behaviour and reduce collisions caused by excess speed and dangerous driving.

That’s why Alison Stewart, the acting coexecutive director of Cycle of Toronto, wants to see the plate covers banned, not just for use but for sale, too.

“This is an example of how, in our capitalist society, we’ve given far too much freedom and leeway to corporations that stand to gain profits from this kind of bad behaviour,” she said. “Governments should do a better job of regulating what’s manufactured and what’s sold in Canada.”

Walk around any Toronto neighbourhood for an hour and you’ll likely see dozens of licence plate covers. On any given street, there are flat covers, bubbled covers and 3D covers that make plates hard to read from an angle or from above. There are translucent covers, dirty covers, covers so dark the plates are nearly invisible from a metre away.

For the city of Toronto, all those covers are a growing problem.

Over the past three years, the number of obstructed plates captured by the city’s automated enforcement cameras has soared. In 2020, about 11,000 red light and speed camera images, or about 5.3 per cent of the total captured, had to be thrown out because of an obscured plate, according to city of Toronto data provided to the Star. By 2022, that number had climbed to 82,000 obstructions, almost 18 per cent of the total.

What that means is that last year, almost one out of every five red light or speed camera images taken in Toronto failed to accurately read the licence plate because of an obstruction. According to the city, that can be anything from a shadow to a trailer hitch or another car following too closely. But traffic safety experts believe plate covers are a huge and growing part of the problem.

“These plastic covers that are not optically correct do cause issues for legibility, and do create glare and other issues,” Shapiro said. “And some of them are designed specifically to interfere with a camera’s ability to record.”

Even up close some of covers make reading of licence plates impossible for police and automated speeding and red light cameras.

Some retailers are explicitly catering to that market. If you search “anti red light camera licence plate cover” on Google, the first results that come up include sponsored ads from Amazon that say “Shop anti radar licence (sic) plate.” If you search the same or similar terms inside Amazon.ca, you get multiple listings for products that explicitly claim to block red light, speed and toll cameras.

In a statement, Amazon Canada said third-party sellers are independent businesses that “are required to follow all applicable laws, regulations and Amazon policies when listing items for sale and that Amazon has “proactive measures in place to prevent prohibited products from being listed.”

The issue, of course, is that selling plate covers is perfectly legal. It’s just using them on the street that isn’t. “You could argue that … knowing that they’re illegal here, or assuming they know they’re illegal here, they shouldn’t sell them morally,” said Shapiro. “But there’s nothing against the law. It isn’t a regulated piece of plastic.”

Amazon is also far from the only retailer selling or facilitating the sale of plate covers that would be illegal to use on Ontario roads. For now, you can still find multiple ads on eBay for plate covers that claim to block red light and speed cameras. But the company says that’s going to change.

“In response to your outreach and consistent with our encouraging illegal activity policy, we are removing the relevant listings and will continue to monitor the marketplace,” the company said in a statement. “In addition to removing listings, we are updating our blocked words list to prevent sellers from using ads to promote these types of items.”

Canadian Tire also offers multiple “smoked,” tinted and bubbled covers for sale online and in store, though none are marketed as being able to block cameras and most come with legal disclaimers. In the company’s store on Eglinton Avenue West near Caledonia Road, there was an entire section of plate covers available when the Star visited last week with options including a “black smoke licence plate shield,” and a “blue tinted bubble licence plate shield.”

Canadian Tire did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Shapiro doesn’t think everyone using a plate cover is doing it to deliberately break the law or block enforcement cameras. A lot of drivers like how they look, he said, and some others are genuinely trying to protect their plates from wear and tear.

“I know it’s a very fine line because both are illegal,” he said. “But intent’s a big thing.”

Busting drivers for illegal plate covers is also not a top priority for Toronto police. Even as the number of red light and speed camera images getting ruined by obscured plates has soared over the past three years, the number of tickets handed out for the offence of “obstruct plate” has remained relatively static. Toronto police wrote about 10,500 obstruct plate tickets in Toronto in 2020 and about 11,500 in 2022.

The eye test backs that up. Illegal plate covers are everywhere on Toronto’s streets, in its parking lots and even at its police stations. On a recent afternoon, in the police-only parking outside 13 Division headquarters on Eglinton West, there were at least three cars visible with darkly tinted licence plate covers, including a Mercedes-Benz and a black Mustang convertible.

Shapiro said that traffic enforcement officers are focused on the big four of dangerous driving: speeding, drinking, distraction and aggression. But he added that doesn’t mean police officers and civilian employees should be breaking the law. “They like looking cool,” he said. But “they are responsible for the same laws … There are no exemptions.”

Back in Brampton, on the driveway outside his home, Kifayatullah Khalil pointed to the plastic covers guarding his own licence plates. Khalil doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the covers he’s selling. Despite a thin layer of winter grime, he doesn’t think the ones on his car could stop anyone, or any camera, from reading his plates. Still, Khalil said, he’s getting out of the plate cover business. Sales just aren’t any good. In 20 months, he’s only moved about 24 units.

For Stewart, the plate covers are part of a larger problem. Speed and red light cameras can help change driver behaviour, she said. But drivers “always find ways to circumnavigate them,” she said. To drive real change on the streets, she believes, you’d have to change the infrastructure.

“Our streets need to be physically reimagined,” she said, “to reduce the speed of car drivers.”


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