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November 9-15, 2005

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Nice Plates

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


By Novella Carpenter

SPECIALTY PLATES aren't for cheesy Southern Californians anymore. In fact, these days they are more likely to signal that the driver is an environmentalist (California's whale-tail plate), a college alum or a pro-lifer (Florida's Choose Life license plate). Departments of Motor Vehicles in every state offer a variety of license plate choices. For example, Virginia has 180 to choose from. There are Clean Special Fuel plates (for vehicles running on CNG, electricity, etc.), Alpha Kappa Alpha (Jenny? Is that you?), Friends of Tibet (Rinpoche? Is that you?), Organ Donor—the list goes on and on.

How did this bounty occur? Mostly because the plates are 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-plate 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 a 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 are the old-schoolers, who would never want an elaborate plate. The old-fashioned vintage-auto people prefer their plates plain and historically accurate. There is even an Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, all atwitter about the history of plates, how they were made and of what—porcelain, leather, sugar-cane 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 that 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 cents 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 drunken drivers with a special license plate. 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 they're drunker than a sailor on shore leave, so beware! This seems like a prudent, not-too-spiteful way to signal to others that, yep, you might want to keep back. However, it might not be fair if, say, their boss holds the yellow and red plate against them.

Potentially worse is another Ohio innovation—pink plates for sex offenders. A bill was introduced by Rep. Michael Debose (and as far as I know, tabled) that would mandate sex offenders to have 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 pro-molester, but, ah, how would sex offenders prevent their cars from getting egged, spat upon, graffitied or their windows broken every single day? It just doesn't seem right.

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


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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.