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Vanity Issue

License plates that are more than personal

By Novella Carpenter

Specialty plates aren't for cheesy Southern Californians any more. These days, in fact, they're more likely to signal that a driver is an environmentalist (California's whale tail plate), a college alumnus or a pro-lifer (Florida's Choose Life license plate).

Every state's Department of Motor Vehicles offers a variety of license plate choices. For example, Virginia has 180 to choose from. They've got your Clean Special Fuel plates (for vehicles running on CNG, electricity, etc.), Alpha Kappa Alpha plates (Jenny, is that you?), Friends of Tibet plates (Rinpoche, is that you?), organ donor plates--the list goes on and on.

How did this bounty of options occur? Mostly because they're fundraisers for the groups they represent. In my Virginia example (I was thinking about ham when I Googled), they offer the groups a cut of the money generated by the special plate sales. For special plates groups, the DMV shares $15 of the $25 yearly fee after the first 1,000 sets of plates are issued.

This explains why some of the designs are just bloody awful. Like the Tobacco Heritage plate--is that a folded up moth or a tobacco leaf? Or the simple "Bowler" plate with a bowling ball and pin. What kind of fundraiser is that? I hope it's a beer fund.

I don't mean to pick on poor old Virginia. Every state has its gamut of ugly plates to choose from, and some beauties, too. I love Kansas' buffalo plate and Colorado's neighborhood electric vehicle plate.

Then there's the old-schoolers who would never want an elaborate plate. The old-fashioned vintage-auto people prefer their plates plain and historically accurate. There's even an Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, all atwitter about the history of plates, how they were made and the various materials used to make the plate: porcelain, leather, sugarcane fibers and now aluminum.

That's what most license plates are still made of. And yes, dear, they are made in prisons. I called Folsom Prison (I do love Johnny Cash) and talked to one of the public information officers there about how they're made. He told me they make a million plates a year at Folsom. It takes three prisoners to make one plate: one to unfurl the aluminum spool, another to place the film on the plate and a third to do the stamping.

The personalized plates have their own prison team. The DMV first OKs the personalized plate, making sure it doesn't offend anyone or doesn't already exist, then it is sent to the prison to be made. Inmates are paid 30 to 95 cents an hour.

This process is changing, now, too. People are predicting that soon the plate won't be pressed onto aluminum and will come minted out of a computer.

Also changing is a new idea for identifying drunk drivers and child molesters with special license plates. In Ohio, some residents convicted of drunken driving must drive a car with bright yellow plates and red letters. I guess if you see a car with such a plate in Ohio you should assume the driver's drunker than a sailor on shore leave, so beware! This seems like a prudent and not too spiteful way to signal to others that, yep, they might want to keep back. However, it might not be fair if, say, the driver's boss holds the yellow and red plate against him.

Potentially worse is another Ohio innovation: pink plates for sex offenders. A bill was introduced (and, as far as I know, tabled) by Rep. Michael Debose that would mandate that sex offenders identify themselves with pink license plates.

Debose, a Baptist minister, proposed the idea in order to protect the children, of course. Now, I don't consider myself to be pro-molester, but how would the sex offender prevent his car from getting egged, spat upon or vandalized every single day? It just doesn't seem right.

It made me wonder what he meant by suggesting pink. The connotations of pink are definitely feminine, but also queer--that's what really seems freaky about the proposal. Oh, and a pink plate with red letters? What was he thinking? Ugh. There's no accounting for taste.

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From the November 9-15, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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