Monday, May 11, 2015

TMI or necessary evil?

States in the U.S. have rules concerning license (British: licence) plates for automobiles and trucks. For example, Georgia uses three letters followed by four numbers. Georgia’s automobile tags can range from AAA0000 to ZZZ9999, with a few alphabetic combinations deemed verboten for various reasons. The possibilities are 26 (A-Z) times 26 (A-Z) times 26 (A-Z) times 10,000 (0000 through 9999) , or 17,576,000,000 possible combinations, more than enough for a state with ten million people.

Alabama’s rule for automobile tags is a little different. There are 67 counties in the state, so license (British: licence) plates begin with the number 1 and go up to 67. Simple enough. Are they determined by population rank? Not exactly. Are they arranged in alphabetic order? Not exactly. Here’s Alabama’s scheme: Numbers 1 through 3 are reserved for the three most populous counties -- Jefferson (city of Birmingham) , Mobile (city of Mobile) , and Montgomery (city of Montgomery) . The remaining counties, in alphabetic order (leaving out Jefferson, Montgomery, and Mobile, of course) , receive tag numbers 4 through 67. So tags in Blount County begin with 8, tags in Calhoun County begin with 11, and tags in Tuscaloosa County begin with 63.

I don’t know what Florida’s scheme is nowadays, but when we lived there the tags were assigned by a county’s population ranking in 1960. Dade (Miami) was 1, Duval (Jacksonville) was 2, Hillsborough (Tampa) was 3, Pinellas (St. Petersburg) was 4, Escambia (Pensacola) was 5, Palm Beach (West Palm Beach) was 6, Orange (Orlando) was 7, Volusia (Daytona Beach) was 8, and so on, through all of Florida’s 67 counties. (Note. It is just a coincidence that Alabama and Florida both have 67 counties. That is not a requirement for a U.S. state. Georgia, for example, has 159 counties, and Texas has 254.)

Florida’s scheme stayed in place for several decades, long after the population of 1960 had shifted dramatically. There was also a sub-scheme that determined the second character on Florida license (British: licence) plates; it took into account the vehicle’s weight and use. For lightweight (economy) cars, the county population rank number was suffixed with a D. Medium-weight (normal?) cars had no suffix. For heavier cars, the suffix was W, and for the heaviest cars, the suffix was WW. If the car was rented or leased, the suffix was E. So one could be driving along and know for a certainty that the car ahead was a rented car (tourist at the wheel?) from Daytona Beach (8Ennnn where nnnn is replaced by numbers) and the car passing in the adjacent lane was a very heavy car from Fort Lauderdale (10WWnnnn) . I do not know how our brains managed to handle all of this important information. Of course, we were much younger then.

Georgia’s cars are taxed by the age of the vehicle (an ad valorem tax that decreases each year) . Florida’s cars, when we lived there, were taxed by weight, and the tax did not decrease each year.

There are 50 states in the U.S. (or 57 if you are President Obama) but I will not burden you with any more information regarding our license (British: licence) plates. I gave up long ago trying to understand why this state uses one scheme and that state uses another. It’s rather akin to sending good money after bad -- not worth the effort and to be avoided at all costs. But this I know -- there is not one America. There are 50 57 a plethora of Americas.

If you are beginning to think I may be an idiot savant, you are only half right.

If you care to tell us the auto tag scheme used in your locality, be my guest. I'm all ears -- but that is another post.

Tag, you’re it.


  1. I have no idea what “scheme” is used here, but you’ve got me interested enough that I’ll try to find out. I do know that car tags used to be a lot prettier. Many states now incorporate detailed artwork—the Douglas Fir is the most commonly seen thing here in Oregon, because it’s what you get if you don’t want to pay extra for something else. Mt. Rainier is the default tag in Washington, but like a lot of tags nowadays, it’s so faint that you can’t make it out unless you’re tailgating. I also miss the mottos. Oregon used to have the words “Pacific Wonderland” and now you can get that kind of a plate if you’re willing to pay extra. I would like to have it, but the extra is too much for me to consider it worth it (maybe I’ll just steal someone else’s tag). My favorite tag used to be Louisianas because it featured a pelican—one that you could actually make out from a distance. Mississippi was “The Magnolia State,” but the tag didn’t have a magnolia on it. It did have the name of the county, something that Oregon lacks.

    Speaking of pelicans’ I was amazed to see them here, having assumed for no reason that they were a Southern bird.

  2. In Great Britain when I was a boy, you could tell where cars came from by checking out their registration plates. Sometimes I sat by the side of the road with my notebook writing down registrations. For example NT meant Shropshire (e.g. LNT 435), PT meant County Durham, RH, KH and AT meant Kingston upon Hull, WF meant East Riding of Yorkshire. Nowadays the focus is more upon the age of a car but still if there's a Y at the start of the letters element it means that the car was first registered in Yorkshire.
    I don't know where RB cars were from - probably Ramsbottom in Lancashire.

  3. Snowbrush and Yorkshire Pudding, good show! I thought this post would be more popular, but maybe readers were simply too overwhelmed with facts to respond.

    Other readers, there's still time.

  4. I don’t know what’s wrong with people that they don’t respond to posts of depth, intelligence, humor, wittiness, and so on and so forth ad nauseum, which reminds me that I haven’t seen you around lately.

  5. never gave it any thought! Very interesting!