Presidential road rules

President Obama's unique number plate

It seems as if every day has been president's day since Barack Obama took office last month. But with tomorrow being the official holiday, it's the perfect time to pose a question I've been pondering for months: Do standard driving rules apply to the man in our highest office?

I understand, of course, that President Obama probably doesn't sit behind the wheel these days. As commander in chief, he's probably too busy attending to the nation's business on his BlackBerry in the back seat.

But there was a time when he did drive and park his own car, right here in the Boston area. As a student at Harvard Law School, in fact, Obama famously racked up hundreds of dollars in parking tickets.

Were Obama to return to Cambridge today as president, could he park anywhere he pleased? Does his vehicle have a special number plate that extends privileges to the driver beyond anything we know? Does our nation's leader adhere to his own driver's manual, as spelled out by some executive statute?

This week and next we take a look at driving rules for officials and dignitaries. Our list includes the president, diplomats, and elected officials, on both the federal and state levels. I also called around to see whether local city officials have parking perks. Some, as reported by the Globe recently, do. Others don't: Just ask Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville about his most recent ticket.

The president

Unfortunately, the transparency of government Obama so often talks about does not apply to releasing information about his number plate or driving privileges. Neither the White House press office nor the Secret Service would comment when I phoned them - national security being the reason, I gathered - so I had to rely on other sources.

The president's specially fortified Cadillac was outfitted with no less than three different number plates leading up to his inauguration, according to Andy Bernstein, a Long Island number plate enthusiast who has a collection of more than 65,000 plates. The president's plate read "44" the day before the inauguration, "1" on the morning of the inauguration, and "USA 1" during the parade, which is the typical plate modern presidents have used for that occasion, Bernstein said.

Presidents usually have ceremonial plates on their cars for the inaugural parade - for years they were made by federal inmates - so nothing unusual there. However, Obama's plates were unique because of their simple scheme of white lettering on a pure, blue background. "The blue theme was obviously for the Democrats," Bernstein said.

Since the inauguration, however, the president has had a standard-looking plate on his vehicle, with a nondescript number, said Janis Hazel, spokeswoman for the District of Columbia's Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Hazel said she hasn't personally seen Obama's plate, as it is a Secret Service plate registered though a separate government office, not the RMV. But it was her understanding that presidential plates typically will look like a standard District of Columbia red, white, and blue plate.

She also believed that several vehicles in the president's fleet have the same number plate. "That's a security measure. That way, you don't know what vehicle the president is in," Hazel said.

That's in line with what Bernstein and specialty number plate manufacturer Mike Coolidge - a distant relative of President Calvin Coolidge - have heard.

"They change the number plates all the time, and they have a garage full of" the same cars, said Coolidge. "I know Clinton had a number plate 'AZ001.' The story I was told was that the fellow in the garage who was responsible for getting the number plate was from Arizona. So he just ordered it."

(Presidential number plates, incidentally, have varied wildly over time, according to photographs in Herbert Collins's 1971 book "Presidents on Wheels," the best resource on the subject, said Bill Bushong, staff historian for the nonprofit White House Historical Association. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, merely had five stars on his number plate.)

Alas, no one I spoke with could point to a law that grants the president's vehicle free parking privileges, or allows his driver to speed at will. In reality, of course, the Secret Service, working through local police, shuts down any street traversed by the presidential motorcade, said agency spokesman Ed Donovan.

At that point, it doesn't really matter what parking rules say.

"If Obama came, he'd come with so many Secret Service that there's nobody who gives parking tickets who could even get close enough to his vehicle to give him one," said Susan Clippinger, director of Cambridge's traffic and transportation department.

"If Barack Obama were to come to Somerville today, I would say, yes, he can park wherever he wants," said Jackie Rossetti, a public information officer in Curtatone's office. "It's a little bit common sense; it's a little bit celebrity factor."

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