My wife and I drive for trips a lot, and when we travel, one way to stay alert on the highway is to "collect" license plates we've seen. So far this year, we have noted 38 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, a "Diplomat" plate, and Quebec and Ontario. Over the years we have seen all 50 states and most Canadian provinces, plus cars from Mexico and Costa Rica -- the latter on I-65 near Indianapolis -- and probably a few other places, too. But every year the list re-sets and we've never gotten all 50 in the same year, even though on a trip to Florida a few years back we saw both Alaska and Hawaii, which are two of the hardest to get. It only counts if we both see it, which is why we're not up to at least 40 states this year, because I spotted Louisiana and Idaho in parking lots when she wasn't with me. And it does seem like there's an Alaska car that spends a lot of time in Toledo, because I've seen it several times, though so far not in 2013.
If you count the various specialty plates that states issue these days, along with the changes in states' "standard" plates, we've surely seen well north of 200 different plate designs. Heck, during that Florida trip, we jotted down descriptions of more than 50 designs for Florida alone! Seems to me that's a bit much, but state motor-vehicles officials have discovered a cash-cow of self-expression. Soccer Mom? Get the "Youth Soccer" plate. Sports fan? Show your allegiance, as long your favorite team happens to be in your particular state. Some of the plate designs are of questionable Constitutionality -- various plates with religious or anti-abortion overtones spring to mind -- but obviously they sell, and that seems to be what matters most.
After reading Tom Walton's commentary about Ohio's dreary new standard license plate, my wife -- who has a Cincinnati Reds plate on her car -- suggested this morning that perhaps Columbus hopes to boost specialty-plate sales. The more people dislike this one, she reasoned, the more likely they are to spend the extra money each year for snazzier tags. But the first thought that came to my mind was, "You think Ohio's new standard plate is dull? Have you looked at Michigan's?" Even though I'm personally not inclined to spend a dime more than I have to on car registration -- the plates on my car are close to 15 years old, and they're still perfectly readable -- I'd have to think twice about taking one of these if I lived in the Wolverine State. That's especially so because the much more attractive Great Lakes Splendor and Spectacular Peninsulas plates are still listed as available on the Michigan Secretary of State's Web site. Perhaps Michigan's still-struggling economy has something to do with this boring new design, but in that case, why not just bring back the familiar, basic blue "Great Lakes" plate from 25 years ago?
The one aspect of the colorful, but freshly retired, "Beautiful Ohio" design that I didn't like was that the word "Ohio" on it was very small. For my "plate collecting" interest, I prefer that the state name be quite prominent and thus easy to identify out on the road. I'm sure law enforcement feels the same way about that -- after all, isn't that a basic purpose of a license plate? The new Michigan plate suffers from this same issue: the "Pure Michigan" lettering is so small that, until you recognize it without actually reading it, it's hard to identify. And once people start sticking fat license-plate frames over it, the Michigan part may well disappear entirely.
On the other hand, some specialty plates are so elaborately decorated that the lettering on them is hard to read. I should like Pennsylvania's "Preserving Our Heritage" plate with a steam engine on it, but I've noticed that once it gets a little dusty, its lettering practically disappears. I'm all in favor of bright colors, and maybe some basic graphics, to liven license plates up, but when form starts defeating function, that's a problem, too.