Whitman County Gazette - Serving Whitman County since 1877

By Gordon Forgey

Identification or art?


March 21, 2019

There was a time when a total of 50 different license plates adorned cars in America. That was one for each of the 50 states.

Many a family trip was saved by the kids in the back seat trying to find as many different ones as they could on long road trips.

Generally, these state plates were distinctive. It was always cause for celebration when an Alaskan plate was seen.

In one’s own state, the plates were ingrained in memory. In cases of emergency or trying to identify an irresponsible driver, all that was needed was an effort to remember the plate numbers. It was simple.

Then, came vanity plates. In Washington, the plate color was changed, but there was enough similarity between the basic plate and vanity plates that one could focus in on the numbers or letters. No confusion.

This all changed with the gradual growth of specialty plates. Currently, Washington has 47 different specialty plates, all with different art and different colors. They are designed to show support to a given cause. They also raise money for that cause. These causes range from WSU to square dancing. Four new plates are being considered. They will celebrate the Seattle Storm, San Juan Islands, Mount St. Helens and the Washington Wine Commission.

According to one law enforcement officer, the multitude of different plate designs can make it challenging for patrol officers. It can also be challenging for witnesses. He said there has to be an end to it. “At what point does it stop?” he asked.

Another officer said that the many plate designs have not caused a problem yet. Sometimes they make identification easier because specialty plates have fewer numbers. He added that it is good that they benefit non-profits. “It all works out in the end,” he said.

As for untrained witnesses, it might be a totally different situation. A citizen reporting on an accident or dangerous driver might miss the plate numbers in trying to identify the plate’s state.

In one case, years ago, robbers were quickly stopped and apprehended because witnesses identified the getaway car as red with an orange out of state license plate. Today, the criminals might get away simply because witnesses could not tell what color the plate was, what state it was from and if the figure on it was a dancing couple or leaping orca.

Despite the good that income from the plates may do for some organizations, an obvious question must be asked: What ever happened to bumper stickers?

Officially licensed bumper stickers would serve the same purpose, showing support and raising money.

Thinking back, license plates were intended for identification, not artwork.


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