Dishing on Vanity Plates
“If one has no vanity in this life of ours,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “there is no sufficient reason for living.” Americans have "vanitized" 9.3 million motor vehicles with vanity license plates, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators—LCNS2ROM [LICENSE TO ROAM] Vanity License Plates Survey conducted in 2007 by Stefan Lonce, author of LCNS2ROM—LICENSE TO ROAM: VANITY PLATES AND THE GR8 STORIES THEY TELL, and AAMVA, which represents the American and Canadian departments of motor vehicles (complete survey results are posted online at www.vanityplatesbook.com).
Some 9.3 million motor vehicles have vanity plates, according to a survey done by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and Stefan Lonce, owner of a website dedicated to vanity plates, called LCNS2ROM.
Vanity plates give people a chance to express themselves to their fellow drivers—they can be funny, political, prurient, or simply whimsical depending on the driver’s temperament. A Hummer from NY sports the plate, “1 MPG.” A white Ford Bronco’s owner declares, “NOT OJ.” Sometimes, however, a vanity plate can result in unexpected consequences.
Take, for example, the story of Robert Barbour, a Los Angeles resident who in 1979 decided to get a vanity plate that would reflect his passion for sailing. The California application asked the applicant to fill out his or her top-three choices, as the first choice is not always available. Barbour filled in two, writing down “SAILING” and “BOATING,” but he didn’t think anything else would do, so he wrote down “NO PLATE” instead of a third choice.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles did not correctly understand Barbour’s intent. After finding that the vanity plates “SAILING” and “BOATING” were already taken, the DMV issued Barbour a set of license plates reading “NO PLATE.” Barbour decided to hold onto them.
About a month later, Barbour received his first notification of an overdue parking ticket; over the next few months, he would receive 2,500 more. It turned out that when police officers issued parking fines to cars without a license plate, they would simply write down “NO PLATE” in the license plate field, and finally the DMV computers had found a match.
Barbour notified the DMV of the problem, but was forced to mail responses to every citation he received himself so as to avoid paying all the fines. Still, despite all the hassle, he kept the plates.
Perhaps if he had lived in another state, Barbour could have escaped such a saga. According to the AAMVA-LCNS2ROM [LICENSE TO ROAM] Vanity License Plates Survey, though only 1 in 28.67 vehicles registered in California has vanity plates—about equal to the national average of 1 in 26.15—due to its sheer size, California has more vanity plates than any other state except Illinois. The likelihood that Barbour’s desired plates would have already been taken were therefore relatively high.
Barbour might also have had problems in Virginia, where an astounding 1 in 6.18 cars is affixed with a vanity plate. Per capita, Texas is the greatest laggard: just 1 in 178.3 Texas vehicles has a vanity plate.
Why that may be is difficult to explain, but that hasn’t stopped Professor Erik Craft from trying. In a 2002 paper, Craft found that states with younger populations, two-plate requirements, and lower incomes all tended to have a higher percentage of vanity plates. Craft offers some potential explanations, but overall there still seems to be little rhyme or reason to the results.
Then again, to quote another famous author, as George Sand once said, “Vanity is the quicksand of reason.”
For more odds and information on vanity plates, click here.