Drill, Baby Drill
Single License Plates a Unifying Issue for Enthusiasts
By Colby Martin
For most of the country's automotive enthusiasts, drilling holes into the front bumper of their prized possession is both a sad and unavoidable occurrence. To them, the legal mandate to equip a license plate on their front bumper is like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. While many associate this dilemma with classic cars, many of their modern counterparts are also adversely impacted. The fact is, a great number of cars and trucks simply weren't designed with forward-facing license plates in mind, including the recent Mustangs, Challengers, Corvettes and even Teslas to name a few. Fortunately for fans of these models, an ever-growing legislative trend could make their bumpers whole again.
In any given year, the SEMA Action Network (SAN) seeks to impact hundreds of legislative proposals, however, no topic garners more consistent grassroots enthusiasm at the state level than single-plate license proposals. Single, rear-mounted plates are one of the rare issues that resonate with all types of enthusiasts—from antique collectors and street rodders to modern exotic and musclecar fans. These niches of the hobby are unified by a passion to protect the appearance and behavior of specialty vehicles. While influencing the legislative process may often seem unapproachable, the popularity of single plate proposals stems in part because they present a simple and easy to articulate legislative solution: 50 states with 50 single plates.
License plates—the number and types of plates issued—are regulated at the state level. As of the beginning of this year, passenger vehicles in 32 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia are required to display two license plates. Fortunately, 2019 represented the start of a new legislative session, with hundreds of fresh faces in statehouses. This has led to a push to enact single-plate laws across the country. In fact, a record 10 states have considered legislative proposals aimed at the single-plate issue.
The biggest legislative success for removing front plates this year came in Ohio, where allies were found in the state capitol. Each year Ohio's legislature is tasked with passing an omnibus transportation budget bill that determines everything from the gas tax rate to highway infrastructure spending improvements. Despite being a long shot, the single license-plate provision was offered for inclusion in the final bill—and ultimately accepted! Starting in 2020, the around 5 million vehicles driven on the Ohio roadways will no longer need a front plate.
Ohio wasn't the only state seeking to get in on the action. A slew of bills attempted to remove the requirement to display a front plate on all passenger vehicles. Single-plate legislation in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Texas and Utah failed to pass earlier this year. Sadly, none of these states saw their proposals gain serious traction before running out of gas. The good news? Motorists in the province of New Brunswick are no longer required to display a front plate on passenger vehicles and light trucks. The pro-hobby rule took effect July 15, 2019. With sessions winding down coast-to-coast, single-plate advocates may have to wait until next year for more legislative victories.
While many state legislatures were considering a transition from two plates to one, New Mexico was the lone state to consider going in the opposite direction. After the flooding of fierce opposition to the addition of a front plate, the bill failed to receive any consideration on the House floor and was killed as the session concluded in March. This is the second year in a row that New Mexico legislators attempted to institute a front-plate mandate only to discover they had severely underestimated the popularity of the current policy.
One of the most interesting developments in the past year has been the rise in the number of states looking into a single-plate exemption for specialty vehicles. The major advantage of these compromise bills is that they drum up less opposition from detractors and thus stand a greater likelihood of becoming law. In 2016, Nebraska passed a law allowing owners of vehicles not originally equipped with a front bracket to request a single license plate. The successful implementation and widespread positive feedback from vehicle owners on this new policy has spurred similar compromise legislation this session in Connecticut and Iowa. The Iowa bill only narrowly failed to pass the legislature, and Connecticut's bill did not advance from its committee of jurisdiction. Thankfully, Rhode Island enacted a new law allowing vehicles with "year of manufacture" (YOM) tags to display a single, rear-mounted plate. All motor vehicles 25 model years old and older will be eligible.
The largest barrier to single-plate enactment is opposition from law-enforcement officials who contend front plates are a necessary part of their ability to identify vehicles. However, this need may soon be a thing of the past as the technology to create digital license plates is already here. Plus, the two-plate state governments would save administration and production costs, especially without needing to create front tags nor replace those damaged or missing. With greater technology available for vehicle identification, the future for single plate legislation and front bumpers without holes may eventually look smoother—keeping a watchful eye on proposed policies is a must.