Lawmakers want to review specialty number plates

Attention trout anglers, tennis players and forestry fans: You can now promote your passion on the back of your cars.

The three are among the latest in an ever-growing collection of specialty number plates on the state's highways, letting motorists show some individuality while generating extra money and awareness for groups, schools and hobbies.

The number of vehicles with specialty number plates not to be confused with personalised or vanity plates has soared by nearly 50 percent in the past three years to nearly 230,000 as of July 1, according to a state Division of Motor Vehicles report.

"When you drive down the road and you see a license, you say, 'What does that number plate mean?'" said Kelly Gaines, with the North Carolina Tennis Foundation whose new "Play Tennis" plate started June 1, generating donations for tennis camp scholarships and junior programs. "There are some incredible causes out there."

With more than 160 styles already stamped and another 120 ongoing efforts to qualify for one, though, some legislators are worried the plethora of number plates might be getting a little out of control.

The Senate approved a bill last week that would create a study commission to look at all the specialty number plates, particularly the 35 or so that don't use the "First in Flight" backdrop that is standard for nearly all of the state's 8.5 million registered vehicles.

Lawmakers concerned that police or victims of crime like hit-and-runs can't keep up with all of the number plates that don't use the traditional white background, blue numbers and red "North Carolina," making it difficult to read and help identify suspects' cars.

"I think that we have too many of them out there," said Sen. Ed Jones, D-Halifax, a retired state trooper. "When the state has distinct number plates, then it makes it a lot simpler."

The proposal also says the Legislature might weed out plate proposals that have been authorised by lawmakers but have failed to reach the 300 applications needed to get issued within two years.

The efforts come as inventory of specialty tags, which generate millions of dollars in revenues annually, appear ready to grow again.

The Senate tentatively approved four more number plates last week, including one that would have an alternative background. Another bill slated for debate Monday night would set in place the process to authorise as many as 21 more number plates.

"If there's an interest group that's willing to pay $30 more to have a North Carolina asset on the back of their car, they should do it," said Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood, who helped get approved a tag to promote the Blue Ridge Parkway, the state's most popular specialty number plates with more than 27,000 in circulation.

Specialty tags have been in North Carolina since 1937 but really took off in the early 1990s, as plates with the logos of the state's largest universities were approved and created as alumni met the application requirements.

Lawmakers have since put more potential number plates on the books for service organisations, state historic and natural sites, professional sports teams, NASCAR drivers, and causes like breast cancer and litter prevention.

"Motor vehicle agencies have certainly seen a growth in the number of specialty number plates offered. The non-profit organisations have found them to be quite valuable," said Jason King, a spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Some states have blocked additional plates due to legal challenges, such as those over the "Choose Life" plate, which doesn't exist in North Carolina.

A California Senate committee avoided considering new number plates because "of the proliferation of number plate types and their resulting loss of effectiveness as a vehicle identifier," according to a Senate document.

In North Carolina, organizations seeking different number plates that don't use the "First in Flight" background must get a model plate approved by both DMV and the Highway Patrol, said Kay Hatcher, DMV's specialty plate expert.

"We really aren't concerned about the image on the number plates," patrol spokesman Everett Clendenin said. "We're concerned that we can clearly read the plates."

Queen said he would be willing to consider raising slightly the qualification threshold above 300 applications, but that likely won't lead to dramatic changes.

Rep. Ronnie Sutton, D-Robeson, who used to lead an annual fight against additional number plates, is less vocal in his opposition in part because colleagues and the public like them.

"Sure they're popular and I don't mind them having them," Sutton said. "But what I'm saying is they all need to have some semblance and the number plates need to be readable."

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