Vanity license plates soar in Virginia

Published 10:16 pm Saturday, July 25, 2009

Everyone has done it.

Sitting in traffic with nothing else to do, you casually glance toward the car in front, where you see a peculiar arrangement of numbers and letters on the license plate facing you.

Is it a message of some sort?

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A nickname?

Or is it just an inside joke shared between family and friends?

Whatever the reason, Virginians lead the country in vanity license plate sales.

Of the 7,698,416 vehicles registered last year to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, 13.7 percent requested personalized license plates, making the product’s penetration rate among consumers the highest in the country.

“It’s a great program,” said Melanie Stokes, public and media relations manager for DMV. “Virginians just love it. It’s very popular and most of the requests are really fun, legitimate ways for somebody to support their college or community spirit or personality.”

DMV launched the personalized plates program back in 1981.

For an additional charge each year, people can order a specialized plate — up to seven characters — for their car.

This additional charge helps to fund the program as well as make the specific plate, and since the DMV is a self-funded agency, the program helps fund DMV operations as well, Stokes said.

She estimated that the DMV gets to keep about eight percent of the revenue brought in from the plates, which is not a bad fundraiser.

Last year, personalized plate sales brought in more than $9.5 million to the DMV, which was up from 2007’s $9.3 million.

“I think people enjoy showing a little bit about themselves on their license plates,” Stokes said. “We see a whole gamut of things, but mostly we have people wanting to describe their personality.”

Of course, not just any plate will be allowed.

The DMV has very strict guidelines on what drivers can put on their license plates. For example, drivers cannot have any license plate that alludes to criminal behavior, drug paraphernalia or crude language.

Stokes said that every license request is given to a committee to allow. She added that the DMV also relies on the public for help in this venture, and if people see a license plate that is questionable they can contact the DMV for review.

“There should be nothing inappropriate, and we rely on people telling us,” she said. “We miss a few things and language is a living, breathing thing — especially as technology keeps expanding.”

If the plate request is denied, the applicant can appeal the vote through a series of steps that could ultimately go to the courts. But, Stokes said, that is very rare.

“Mostly people have good, clean ideas,” Stokes said.