The License Plate Game

The school year ends this week so it is just about time for another Denning family road trip. Despite the minivan with bucket seats, the DVD player, and multiple portable electronic devices, my kids are terrible travelers. So this summer I think we’ll go old school and try the license plate game. My kids are sticklers for rules (they take after their father) so we’ve got to decide whether license plates mounted on the front count. That caused me to wonder why people have such plates in the first place and whether it is lawful to place them on the front of a vehicle registered in North Carolina.

If you grew up in the Southeast like me, you may think (as I once did) that the spot on the front of your car for a license-sized plate is just for displaying your school pride, an advertisement from the dealership where you purchased your car, or a plate from another state that you frankly think is a lot cooler than the one you currently live in. As it turns out, however, most states actually require that vehicles display two license plates—one on the front of a vehicle, and another on the back. According to this 2012 study by researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, only 19 states (including North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Florida) require that vehicles display only a rear license plate.

The backstory.  North Carolina once required front and back plates, but the General Assembly amended G.S. 20-63 in 1951 to permit the DMV Commissioner to issue only one registration plate for each motor vehicle if he or she determined that there was “an actual or threatened shortage of metal.” S.L. 1951, c. 102. Eventually, G.S. 20-63 was amended to simply require, regardless of the availability of metal, that only one registration plate be issued and that the plate be attached to the rear of the motor vehicle. See G.S. 20-63(d) (generally requiring that plates be attached to the rear, but providing for front placement for truck-tractors and certain other vehicles).

Some contend the two-plate system is better. The Texas study concluded that front plates were easier than rear plates to read in the daytime because of the sun glare on rear plates and that the presence of front plates makes it easier to collect tolls and parking fees because it results in more readable photographs. The study also noted that the presence of two plates provides better opportunities to identify vehicles, which can be particularly useful when combined with automatic license plate reader technology. This technology (which Jeff discussed here) can assess hundreds of plates per hour and automatically alert officers to plates that are stolen or that belong to individuals suspected of criminal activity. According to the study, two-plate detractors cite the expense of issuing two plates, the potential increase in fraudulent registration as people split a pair of plates between two cars—one registered and one not—and “the negative effect on the aesthetics on the front of the vehicle.”

So is it a violation?  G.S. 20-111(2) makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor to willfully display an expired registration plate.  Does this apply to expired out-of-state plates displayed on the front of a vehicle?  I doubt it.  While one could argue that the presence of such a plate might mislead a law enforcement officer about the registration of the vehicle, any such misunderstanding could be readily corrected by examining the rear of the vehicle. Plus, it turns out that law enforcement officers may not rely all that much on their visual observation of license plate numbers anyway. See Texas A&M Transportation Institute report at 12-13 (stating that officers often use other factors as a means of identification before focusing on the plate).

Rules of the game.  Presuming they’re legal, and for purposes of the summer road trip, do front license plates count?