January 12, 2003

Congestion Charge Chaos

Patrick Crozier | London Congestion Charging

The Times has a whole bunch of drivers in London complaining not so much about the charge itself as its administration.

This does not entirely surprise me. The congestion charge has been introduced in probably the worst possible way with a clunky technology, all manner of exceptions and the almost complete absence of a market in the alternatives to driving - buses are regulated by the state, jitneys are illegal and you have to have a licence to drive a cab. In this context, if congestion charging yet proves successful (which, he says sticking his neck out, I think it will) then it will open the floodgates to tens if not hundreds of schemes like this nationwide.

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I have been researching for six months how to avoid or evade the London congestion charge. Originally, I had a plan to sell numberplate stickers for 10 quid each that would help to fool the cameras and overflow Ken Livingstone's Traffic for London's (TFL) system.

Unfortunately, I do not live in England but overseas and therefore I am in no position to make money from such an enterprise. I would, however, like to see the shitty scheme collapse because I believe it is unjust and therefore I am sharing anonymously and freely the results of my research with just four weeks to go before the scheme is introduced.

Four weeks is plenty of time for individuals to act on this, but not enough time for the authorities to do anything about it, which is why I have left this e-mail until now.

Those people that can act very quickly might make a few bob out of this and good on 'em. The real reason I am sharing this research is not to make any stranger a millionaire but rather to save every Londoner a large "chunk of change" and show the authorities that there WILL be resistance from the population if they try to control people lives and steal from their wallets. If you let the government get away with this, within a few years they will have retina scanning going in and out of the London Underground. Fight back now while you still have the chance.

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Logistics and common sense.
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I spent several months investigating and testing this technology, interviewing experts around the world who know about ANPR and precisely how the number plate on each car is read. I have also tested it using the same cameras and software being used by TFL and other systems just to see how robust they are. In essence in believe I have found the perfect solution. One where YOU the driver is not breaking any law but you WILL be able to avoid paying the charge over 90% of the time.

By refusing to pay, which some campaigners are now encouraging drivers to do, you are hoping that 10% of your fellow Londoners are going to do likewise. If others chicken out and pay because they don't want to face a 400 quid plus fine and have their car impounded, then the tiny number of people with the guts to protest are basically left high and dry to be royally screwed by Livingstone's legal dogs. My solution is a far more elegant and has no downside risk, since it works on being invisible to the cameras most of the time and paying ONLY when you get detected by a camera.

If using this technique you DO get detected (you can check instantly on the net or wherever you pay) then you just pay the five pound charge. If you don't get detected, you don't pay. But because it is so easy (and legal) to beat the system, you'll soon find many other drivers joining you and the system will quickly collapse through trial by media and political mockery.

The fundamental weakness of the camera/computer system being used by TFL is that it relies on almost total automation to be cost effective.

With traffic violations such as red light jumping or cars driving in bus lanes, the authorities can afford to manually intervene and have a human analyze the image, if for example 10% of people were trying to trick the system, because the total number of cars jumping lights or using bus lanes is relatively small. However, the total number of cars coming in and out of London everyday is absolutely HUGE so the system needs to be fully automatic.

Here are the numbers from the Transport for London web-site.

"Roughly 250,000 vehicles make 450,000 movements into the charging zone during the period 7am-6.30pm."

So at 10% of cars fooling the automatic detection system that would mean 45,000 manual images per day analyzed by humans. Assume one person can analyze and type the numberplates of 60 images per hour for 6 hours per day, that means Red Ken would need a permanent staff of 125 people just analyzing images, with a computer each, plus IT support, office space etc. He doesn't have the money for that. Even if he got the money there would be a very high turnover of staff because that would be a really crap job.

The system will therefore break down with a relatively small number of people tricking it and when those who are avoiding payment tell other drivers, there will be positive feedback because the barrier to entry is so low. Hence this e-mail.

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Some technical background stuff.
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The company that is supplying the ANPR (Automated Number Plate Recognition) System is CRS (Computer Recognition Systems) see http://www.crs-vision.com of Wokingham, Berks. I called CRS and "socially engineered" the information I needed to know from them about the cameras being used and the software analyzing the image. They told me that the system being used is not the standard system they sell but bespoke for the job. But when I questioned them more deeply, it turned out that the recognition part IS from the standard system. The bespoke part is the data handling (the legal aspects of what TFL do with the data once they have captured it); to ensure it holds up in court.

CRS told me that their analysis software is "running ALL the cameras in the TFL system", so we are only talking about one supplier. This makes the task of tricking it very easy indeed. Even if they were lying it doesn't make much difference because all these systems work in much the same way.

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Cut to the chase - How to legally beat the congestion charging system.
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Essentially all that is required to fool the cameras is that they read the wrong numberplate on your car OR read the right numberplate wrongly. The camera is essentially scanning the front of your car and looking for a rectangular shape that it 'thinks' is a number plate. Now clearly most number-plates are at the front and in the middle of the bumper, so that is where the software is going to focus first. It locates the rectangular plate shape first and then makes an attempt to read the characters on it. Provided there is only one thing that looks like a plate, the plate is cleanish, reasonably straight and the characters are the usual font (See below) it will be successful 98% of the time.

This is the British law about number plates and is worth reading.

http://www.hmso.gov.uk/si/si2001/20010561.htm#6

From the above link it is clearly illegal to deliberately obscure your number plate, or have it very dirty, or remove it, mess around with the fonts, or drive with some of it broken off. BUT it is not illegal to move your number plate to the extreme right (or left) of your front or rear bumper (picture a new Alfa Romeo Spider which has it to the side) AND it is not illegal to put a six or seven letter phrase where the number plate would normally be - IN ADDITION TO displaying your number plate at the extreme right (or left) of your bumper.

This phrase could be JUDIE or FUKUKEN or BECKHAM or whatever you like. Ideally you want to use letters that look like numbers O and I, but you don't need to use numbers, letters by themselves will confuse the system and if you stick to letters of the alphabet (A-Z) then there is no way the police can claim you are obscuring your numberplate or appear to have two numberplates. You are merely DECORATING your car with a sign and nobody in their right mind would think that a sign that said NOFIVER or BECKHAM was a number plate; although they might be able to legally argue that N0F1VER appeared to be. So stick to letters.

The font used to print all modern number plates in the UK is called the Charles Wright font.

http://www.charles-wright.com/homeset.html

You can download it from the above site for 39 quid and I am sure the web-site will be very happy if 100,000 of you do. On the other hand you could 'phone a friend' (or eight) and split the cost with them or try and find a pirate copy of it using Kazaa if you are a real tight wad.

Once you have the font it is merely a question of making up your 'sign' or signs using a word processor. Make sure your sign has the same physical dimensions as a number plate, same background area and colour, same font size and same letter spacing. Remember you are trying to make your sign LOOK like a number plate to a non-human computer but also make sure that not even the stupidest policemen would be able to claim in court that it was mistakable for a number plate to any human. AND you are also displaying your genuine number plate on the car anyway just shifted to the extreme right (or left) of your bumper but kept facing forward, visible, clean and at the right height (same height from the road as it was before you moved it). According to the above web-site, which quotes the law, you have obeyed the law. If the cameras cannot read it, then Ken had better get some new cameras and software or just scrap the whole scheme and go find another job.

Your other alternative is to go to a car accessory shop and have them make you up a 'sign' as a number plate. Tell them that you want it for your bedroom door. They will charge you about 10 quid, 15 tops. Get the bolts for it elsewhere. Stick it on well or some tight-wad-bar-steward will nick it off your car and use it on his. If the shop refuse to make you up a sign up, go to another car accessory shop because you'll soon find a shop that wants your money or better still let your fingers do the walking.

Now logically if it is not illegal to have one girlfriend's name or favourite soccer star on your bumper, then it is not illegal to have two or more. Clearly the more signs you have, the more difficult it is for the software behind the camera to pick the numberplate from the signs. You are going to confuse the hell out of the program. Error....cannot compute !!! The front of your car is going to look like Piccadilly Circus but only for a while.

In theory the government could legally ban all signs from the front or rear of cars, but I don't think they would do that. For one thing it would be violating some basic freedoms and for another the people who make bumper stickers would complain very loudly. Moreover, it takes time to change laws and if the TFL system is not working in the first two months, it is a dead duck and like the poll tax no politician is going to be stupid enough to re-introduce it.

Here are some ideas for double signs. I am sure the more creative of you can think of even better ones and I am waiting with baited-breath to see what you come up with. Perhaps a tabloid newspaper will give a holiday for two for the most creative phrases.

KENLIVIN STONED
FIVER RICHER
CHARGE THIS V
FRY-ME? FUCKU


So there it is. My secret is out. Help yourself by sharing it with other car drivers. I'll now be working hard for the next five years rather than drinking Pina Coladas on some Mexican beach. But as John Lennon said, the best things in life are free. Hopefully you'll follow the simple instructions or find a friend who can and save yourself a few squids. I have no intention of seeking fortune, infamy, or writing a book about this subject. The pleasure of seeing Red Ken's ugly face with egg dribbling from his chin or his awful squeaky little voice complaining about it will be enough fun for me.

Good luck and don't let the bastards get you down.

DocSpock.

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Copyright Notice. You the reader are welcome to send this to whoever you want or put it up on a website or publish it in a newspaper etc., as long as you give credit to the author DocSpock and don't try and pass it off intellectually as your own idea.

Usual Legal Disclaimer. While I hope and believe that the materials above will be helpful, I do not warrant their accurateness or completeness. These ideas are general in nature and may not apply to particular circumstances. The information is not offered as legal or any other advice on a particular matter and should not be relied on as such. Moreover, you have to find me before you can prosecute or expose me.

Posted by DocSpock on January 21, 2003

did it work?

Posted by Richard on October 14, 2003

This is really appealing idea, not least because I'd like my company name on the car.

However...

The DVLA said that position isn't stipulated but if there's a place on the car for a numberplate then it should be affixed there otherwise it would be deemed as misrepresentation, which of course it is. The police, who might not be aware of the law in detail, would I'm sure stop you. Perhaps you could argue the point and get let off once they'd taken advice but I reckon you would get nabbed and have to take it to an appeal.

Assuming that the bogus plate was recorded by the TFL cameras then a matching failure would show up when cross referenced with DVLA records. Following up manually on failures would be feasible and the details from the colour camera would show the real plate. Even if the dodge was deemed legal, once this had been done once the details of the mismatched plate could be recorded and thereafter the bogus plate would be matched in the set of "exceptions" and you'd be caught every time. The concept of exceptions may not exist in the software but could be added if they deemed that it would be fruitful, or you may just get caught everytime from a manual check.

Posted by Nick on December 4, 2003

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