Specialty license plates (copy)

South Carolina has more than 400 different license plates designs, and the Legislature is adding more every year. 

We tend to think of license plates as vehicles for collecting vehicle taxes and, perhaps too often, as personal expressions of ourselves. But their primary purpose is law enforcement.

The tag tells the police officer, before she gets out of her cruiser, who owns that car she just pulled over for running a red light, and whether that’s someone on the run from law enforcement. It tells whether the vehicle has been reported stolen. That sort of information can provide clues as to whether the driver might be dangerous, and whether the officer should call for backup.

Being able to identify this basic information about a vehicle, in other words, can save a police officer’s life.

So it’s good news that the state Department of Motor Vehicles is finally able to produce trackable temporary license plates with alpha-numeric codes that are tied to the vehicle owners. The new plates, authorized by a 2018 law, are available to dealers now and will be required on all newly purchased vehicles beginning in November.

DMV Director Kevin Shwedo predicted that the plates will “prove critical in ensuring the safety of our law enforcement officers,” in addition to helping make sure auto dealers submit registration and title information to the state as required by law.

Replacing the current temporary plates — easily forged paper tags that are little more than advertisements for the dealers who hand them out, often with an expiration date written in magic marker – is a major step forward. But there are more steps that need to be taken.

The “plate gallery” on the DMV’s website displays more than 400 different varieties of license plates available for purchase. Imagine it, and it’s probably there, from the Air Force Cross tag to the Zeta Phi Beta tag. Perusing the gallery is like browsing through a bumper sticker display: There’s a “Working for the Wild Turkey” tag, two separate wildlife tags and a Gone Fishing tag. We can buy tags to show our loyalty to the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Square Dance, SC Stands with Israel and SC Equality, the SC Cattlemen’s Association and Quality Deer Management, Parrothead and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. An In God We Trust plate is offered next to the In Reason We Trust plate. There’s a tag for every college you can think of, along with one for Wilson High School.

If you can’t find one you can like, just ask the DMV to create one for you. Better still, ask your legislator; lawmakers do that every year. Which is why we have more than 400.

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The problem with all those different designs is that they make it harder for police to use the plates to do what they’re supposed to do: identify information about the vehicle and the owner. Unless you’ve memorized all 400 symbols, how close do you have to get to the speeding car to see that it’s a USC 2017 Women’s Basketball National Champions instead of a 2010 and 2011 National Baseball Champions tag?

There’s also a public policy problem with the specialty tags, because most of them are actually fund-raising tools, with an extra $50 or so tacked on to the price to support the organization they advertise. Some of these groups do good work, but the DMV is being forced to serve as a fund-raising agent for just about any organization that wants to get the taxpayers to subsidize its fund-raising, rather than hiring someone to do that job.

It’s great that the Legislature finally recognized the problem with temporary tags. Now they need to recognize the smaller but similar problem posed by the proliferation of specialty license plates, and fix it as well. If people want to advertise their favorite cause on their back fender, they can buy a bumper sticker.

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