State Officials: Too Many License Plates Spur Too Much Confusion

Law enforcement officials fear variety leads to confusion


Specialty license plates raise money and awareness for a variety of groups and causes. But that variety can lead to confusion, especially in states where there are hundreds of designs, say officials calling to limit variety.

"The average South Carolina tag is covered by a frame from a car dealer," said Kevin Shwedo, executive director of the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, as he held up a license plate honoring military veterans. "In this case, it would cover the words 'South Carolina.' Yet, you would see the 'VT' and assume that it is a tag from Vermont."

According to officials, the difficulty reading the increasing variety of plates affects police officers, witnesses and even computerized optical scanners.

"If you are going to ask me my personal opinion which one is most important, public safety or vanity, it is always going to be public safety," Schwedo said. "But I believe there is a balance, and that is what we are looking to strike."

States across the nation have increased the number of designs available to meet growing demand from organizations and constituencies wanting to increase funding and visibility for their causes.

A bill before the South Carolina Legislature would increase the number of specialty license plates from 370 to more than 700. The augmented list would include tags for individual high schools, librarians and lovers of beach music.

"One of the features of our plate is the money that we make goes into our foundation, which helps with youth scholarships," said Roy Copelan, vice president of the South Carolina Cattlemen's Association.

South Carolina may eventually follow the route of neighboring Georgia, which has standardized the right two-thirds of its license plate, while allowing customized logos for various groups and causes on the left side. The group's name or slogan appears at the bottom of the plate, while "Georgia.gov" is printed in large letters at the top.

"It's critically important that the community comes out in a way to make sure that the plates are easily legible and that law enforcement officers can identify what they need to identify," said Ian Grossman, vice president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.