The Bold and the Beautiful
License Plates Do More than Tag Cars; They Can Say a lot about a State
By Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
Every car, motorcycle and farm truck has one, but who really pays attention to the beauty of license plates?
Gus Oliver, that’s who.
Oliver, an Oklahoma resident, is coordinator of the Best License Plate Award for the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association. The 3,000-member association has recognized the best-designed new license plate each year since 1970.
“Our organization decided states should be recognized for basically doing a good job designing their license plates,” Oliver said. “… We really collect something that was never intended to be collected. They (license plates) really are a historical artifact.”
About 40 years ago, two events led states to change from plain, utilitarian license plates to the more decorative ones seen today. In the 1960s, the federal government mandated states to make license plates reflective, which led to the development of new technologies that allow the decoration of plate backgrounds. Then, leading up to 1976, states began doing more graphic-heavy license plates to commemorate America’s bicentennial.
“That was the genesis of graphical license plates,” Oliver said. “Different states have gone to different degrees of graphical plates.”
Here then, are some of the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of state license plates.
Fundraising Through Plates
The 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger shortly after launch sparked the idea of using license plates to raise funds for organizations. “The other groups in Florida and groups in other states started adopting specialty tags as a way of raising money,” Oliver said. In the 2010-11 fiscal year, Floridians spent $32 million on more than 1.4 million specialty plates.
Graphics Add Character
“Florida has some nice graphic (plates),” Oliver said. “The Save the Dolphins plate is absolutely gorgeous.” No argument from Florida: “Save the Dolphins is a pretty one,” agreed Courtney Heidelberg, communications director for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Maryland is no stranger to specialty plates. Buel Young, spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, said the state has more than 900 specialty plates. One reason: The state requires just 25 orders of a new plate before producing it. Florida, on the other hand, requires 1,000 presold plates before production.
Sticking to the Basics
Although it has quite a few fundraising specialty plates, Maryland’s tags are fairly basic. They have a white background with the logo or the organization to the left. Young said one plate that’s been a hit is the Baltimore Ravens license plates. It benefits the Ravens All Community Team Foundation, which provides support to various Baltimore nonprofit organizations.
Commemorating the War of 1812
Maryland’s new standard issue plate is a commemorative for the War of 1812. Maryland keeps all its license plates, including this one, fairly basic. “It’s to keep them as convenient to produce and as cost efficient to produce (as possible) so it doesn’t become burdensome,” said Young.
The state does have a few graphics-heavy plates. An agricultural one has plenty of color. “The farming one and a few others are attractive,” Oliver said.
2010 Award Winner
New Mexico’s centennial license plate was the 2010 winner of America’s Best License Plate. “New Mexico has always had a very traditional looking license plate,” Oliver said. “They kept with the simplicity of their design. It does have that retro look to it. The colors are very striking.”
S.U. Mahesh, spokesman for the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department, said the award was an honor for the state. “It puts New Mexico on the map. It’s a good plate. It’s simple, it’s clear and New Mexicans like it.”
Color is one thing New Mexico residents seem to embrace when it comes to license plates. The turquoise centennial plate or these traditional yellow plates are both standard issues. “It’s got a lot of cultural and historical significance,” Mahesh said. “These are New Mexico’s colors.”
Readability Matters Too
OK, so not all license plates can be stunning. Take Oklahoma’s National Weather Service license plate, for instance. “It has the dark, ominous sky,” Oliver said. “It has dark blue letters on this dark sky. It is virtually unreadable from almost any distance. I have no idea how it got approved. I have bought several of those just on the expectation it is going to be redesigned to eliminate that situation.”
Readability, Oliver said, is just as important as looks when it comes to license plates.
“(The plate needs) to have something that’s attractive, a nice graphic, that doesn’t interfere with the numbering,” he said. “Arizona came up with a really beautiful plate last year that had lots of animals on it, but the numbers got in the way of the design.”
Wildlife is Popular
Proving that not all of the state’s license plates are dark and forbidding, Oklahoma offers nine wildlife conservation plates, covering everything from bass to the Texas horned lizard. They remain fairly popular, said Paula Ross, communications director for the Oklahoma Tax Commission. “Wildlife was probably one of our initial (specialty) plates,” Ross said. The state has sold about 4,000 to 5,000 of those plates.
More than 200 plates are available in Virginia, and some of them are graphic-heavy, said Melanie Stokes, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The subjects range from celebrating the Chesapeake Bay and the Appalachian Trail, to the Free Tibet and the Parrothead plates.
Scenic Virginia Mountain
The scenic Virginia Mountain plate is the state’s best-selling specialty plate, Stokes said. As of June 30, 2011, more than 265,000 had been sold. “The scenic is everybody’s favorite,” Stokes said.
Top Seller in Fundraising
During the 2010-11 fiscal year, Virginia’s specialty plates raised $3.1 million for 52 organizations. The top seller for those revenue-sharing plates was a Clean Special Fuel plate, which garnered $361,000 for the state police’s high-occupancy vehicle enforcement fund. Oliver said Virginia always has nice tags. “Virginia is at the top,” he said. “They make a number of nice looking, graphic plates.”