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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Why two license plates?

Is one enough?  Is two too many?  Those are the basic questions pondered when states consider the number of license plates required on vehicles.  But after B.W.’s email informed me that a House Bill suggesting single plates here received no consideration in Washington’s Legislature, I found the decision goes well beyond those questions.

H.B. 1664 recently died as The Legislature adjourned without even giving the bill committee consideration.  That was a face-slap to proponents who sought to protect the aesthetic contours of vehicles and relieve vehicle owners of the burden and expense of having to create mounting holes on some front bumpers.  Supporters said the measure also would have saved money, conserved resources and brought Washington in line with other states that are moving to a single plate requirement.  It was even suggested that front plate removal could increase fuel mileage.

All of those things may be true, and bill backers were at least honest in admitting to the “aesthetic” aspect, but they were fighting a much bigger adversary:  state revenue.

Yes, some resources could be saved (paint and aluminum) and some money too.  But, those resources are not in short supply, and according to a study by Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the money saved is only a few cents per vehicle, and those costs are passed on to vehicle owners and not bore by the states.

That study also pointed out that there are 19 states that require only a rear plate, and 31 that demand them both front and rear.  The conclusion of their research was that the requirement is not about the states’ interest in safety, or their disinterest in aesthetics, but rather due to revenue — and not the kind gained from sticking extra metal up front.

Instead, A&M found that having a second plate makes it easier to photograph those who run stop signs and red lights, ignore tolls or leave unattended parking lots without paying.  Also, automatic license plate readers linked to databases make it easier to track down scofflaws electronically instead of having humans view license plates.

According to Melissa Walden, A&M research scientist, “That adds up to millions of dollars in cost savings and millions more in additional revenue collected.”

Colorado, a two-plate state was cited as an example.  There, on the E-470 toll road near the Denver area, tolls are electronically collected.  One-third of the revenue collected each year — $23 million — came from information on front license plates.

Many one plate states, like Arizona, have found that the rear plate often can’t be read electronically due to sun glare at a given time, requiring some transactions at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport to then be processed manually.

It seems that aesthetics are really the main motivator for consumers who ask for change.  Unfortunately for them, cloaking that request in a shroud of saved costs and resources simply doesn’t stand up against the potential revenue gains and budget savings that two-plate states may realize.

Walden remarked, “If you have this $100,000 car, you don’t want to hurt the appearance of the car by putting a license plate on the front of it. Owners feel like that not only ruins the appearance of the car, but it affects the value.”  I don’t think states care.

Washington, Texas and Ohio have recently mounted quiet campaigns to go “single” when it comes to plates.  For reasons I now understand, those laws did not change.

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at