Arrow-right Camera

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Sunday, May 31, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Rain 49° Rain

Know Spokane

Road signs: What license plate trends can tell you about Washington State

Washington State University license plate. Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State University license plate. Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

If you measure in license plates, Washington State University’s Cougs are soundly beating the Huskies.

And it’s not just universities: They’re beating the Seahawks and the Army too.

WSU is the most popular of Washington’s 45 specialized license plates, which benefit nonprofits and public universities across the state through fees charged for the special designs. Special plates are renewed annually, with $28 of the fee going toward the designated nonprofit or state agency.

Some 22,936 Washingtonians currently have a plate for the Cougs, an endeavor that’s funded more than $613,000 in scholarships this year, according to a news release from the university.

But Department of Licensing data on the special plates shows more than just the popularity of the crimson and gray. It turns out you can tell a lot about a Washington county by which license plates are popular.

Some are regional: WSU’s popularity grows as you move east. Not surprisingly, Whitman County has the highest number of plates per capita, with nearly 3,755 per 100,000 vehicles. In Spokane, there are 448 plates per 100,000 vehicles, and in King County, only 297.

Others are county-specific. Gonzaga’s alumni association has about 140 plates per 100,000 Spokane vehicles, a number that plummets even in neighboring counties. That’s likely because Gonzaga’s alumni base is heavily concentrated in the county. University spokesman Pete Tormey said about 40 percent of GU alumni live in Washington, and of those, 40 percent are in Spokane County.

The university debuted a new plate last fall, and its sales have been climbing steadily. Typically, Gonzaga has about 100 new plates per year, he said, for a statewide total of about 1,600, according to the DOL. But sales have tripled since the new design came out.

“It was a very good year to be a Zag, so that probably didn’t hurt our rollout,” he said.

Eastern Washington University’s plate is about as popular as Gonzaga’s in Spokane County, but markedly less so elsewhere. Outside Spokane, Gonzaga plates show some concentration in Lincoln and Stevens counties, as well as along the Interstate 5 corridor on the West Side. EWU plates are most concentrated in the rural Eastern Washington counties surrounding Spokane.

Each branch of the military has its own plate design, and statewide, the Army is the most popular, followed by the Marines and the Navy. But the Air Force leads in Spokane County, no doubt thanks to Fairchild Air Force Base. The plate, which requires proof of current or past service, is on 410 Spokane County vehicles.

Popular state fauna vary by region as well. The state has six designs benefiting the Department of Fish and Wildlife: orca, bear, deer, elk, steel head and eagle. The patriotic eagle narrowly beats out the orca, with 5,501 plates statewide, and the steelhead trails the list, with 683.

In the San Juan islands, however, the orca is the most popular license plate by far. In fact, you’re more likely to see a plate with an orca in San Juan County than a Cougs plate in Spokane: about 978 per 100,000 vehicles in the San Juans carry the killer whale. Washington’s lighthouse plate, which benefits state lighthouses, is almost exclusively found in coastal counties as well.

Elk are far more popular than deer, but both appear on a greater percentage of plates in rural counties. Skamania County, in southwestern Washington, has the highest rate for both animals, but Ferry and Garfield counties come close for the elk.

Ferry County also has the distinction of being the only county in Eastern Washington where WSU is not the most popular plate. The Cougs take the second slot, narrowly, to the Law Enforcement Memorial plate, which benefits the Behind the Badge Foundation. That plate is a popular choice statewide, in third place behind the Seahawks.

Not every plate benefits an organization. Square dancing has been Washington’s official state dance since 1979, and as such, you can get a special square dancing plate purely to show your love for the activity. It’s not a popular option, with just 664 plates statewide. Less popular still are wrestling (112 plates benefiting the state wrestling foundation) and tennis (19 plates, which fund new public indoor tennis facilities).

Any nonprofit organization or government agency can apply for a new special plate under state law, though it’s not cheap: the application requires a $6,300 startup fee and signature sheet showing at least 3,500 plates will be purchased.

If, on the other hand, you want to be another proud Washington Coug, Eagle or Bulldog, the application at is pretty straightforward.

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Pete Tormey’s name.

Check out a map of which special plates are popular in each county at

Rachel Alexander
Rachel Alexander came to the Spokesman-Review in 2014 after working for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. She covers social services, health and science for the City Desk and writes a monthly data-focused column, Know Spokane.

Follow Rachel online: