Spray-On Mud Makes a Splash

It’s sold as a must-have accessory to give urban SUVs a whiff of the outback. But U.K. officials say drivers who use spray-on mud to avoid identification by police speed cams face hefty fines for obscuring their license plates.

Targeting self-conscious 4×4 owners whose rugged vehicles seldom see obstacles bigger than a speed bump, the enterprising British e-tailer behind Sprayonmud sells the scent of the countryside in a squirt bottle.

For 8 pounds (about $14.50), buyers get 0.75 liters (.85 quarts) of genuine filthy water, bottled from hills near the company’s premises on the rural England-Wales border. The aim, says the website, is “to give your neighbors the impression you’ve just come back from a day’s shooting or fishing — anything but driving around town all day or visiting the retail park.”

“The mud is from Shropshire,” said Sprayonmud proprietor Colin Dowse, a financial consultant who has been selling the product in the United Kingdom for 12 months. “It contains mud plus some secret ingredients to improve stickability so that it dries before it runs off the paintwork.”

Dowse got the idea during “idle chat in the pub after work” and said the sprays, available only online and by mail order, are bought as “novelty gifts” by city folk. Asked if they take advantage of those who are either too lazy to bottle their own grime or too precious to take their 4×4 on the open road, he said “all of those.”

But, while the site promises SUV owners a route around social stigma flung by a growing anti-4×4 lobby, motorists of other stripes are thought to use the same technique to freely flout speed limits.

Tipsters in motoring forums advise canny drivers they can smear mud over their license plate to avoid detection by police speed cameras, which photograph plates’ registration details to ID lawbreakers using a national vehicle database. A few squirts of dirt, and snapped speeders would become as good as invisible.

Sprayonmud strongly warns customers against such practices, but the retailer last week took out an online advert that described the “speed camera special” spray as “a loophole” for those “thinking of being nicked for speeding.”

“Clearly, it is aimed at blocking speed cameras,” said James Bancroft, an anti-speed-camera campaigner whose Speedcam website gives away the location of many English speed-detection zones.

The U.K. government’s Department for Transport said such use of mud carries a hefty fine.

“It is an offense to treat a number plate in a way that obscures the characters of the registration mark and I would imagine that this would include obscuring a plate with mud,” said Scot Marchbank, a spokesman.

“We are aware that a number of products designed to obscure number plates are being marketed on the internet and through mail order and (we) have warned the small minority of motorists who might be tempted to purchase these sprays that they are illegal and could result in a fine of 1,000 pounds ($1,820).

Dowse acknowledged obscuring registration marks with his dirt “could be illegal,” but suggested it is “conceivable that mud could get onto a number plate if, when spraying, one wanted a more authentic distribution over the car.”

Mud in a can is just the latest tactic used to outsmart traffic police, whose policy of fining motorists caught speeding is seen by some as merely a revenue-generating exercise, despite helping to cut road deaths.

Other retail products include a high-gloss spray and an angular license plate cover that, when hit by camera flash, overexpose photographs to obscure registration marks. Drivers can even download cameras’ locations to a dash-mounted GPS device that gives an audible warning when a camera is just around the bend.

Britain’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which regulates license plates, said Sprayonmud itself was not breaking any laws, but added it was concerned by the emergence of such sprays and would report to relevant authorities anyone marketing them for illegal uses.

“(The spray) is an inevitable response to bonkers and counterproductive speed enforcement,” said Paul Smith, an anti-speed-camera campaigner with the Safe Speed group who claims to have conducted more than 8,000 hours of research into speeding. “I think that the average copper would be mildly amused.”