In praise of boring license plates
In my column thingy today, I take a look at the new Maryland license plates and wonder whether the most ubiquitous pieces of state-sponsored public art -- potentially hundreds of thousands of 6-inch-by-12-inch metal canvases -- are too important to be left to the bureaucrats.
If I don't make it abundantly clear in the piece, I'm an admirer of the old Maryland plate design. I think it's just as classy as all get-out.
I have some prejudices: I grew up in a state, Indiana, that seemed to change the design of its plate every other year to some other god-awful design. (Special thanks to the wonderful 15q.net for research assistance.)
So I appreciate the elegance and persistence of the Maryland tags, and in the course of doing research for the story, I realized that I'm spoiled to live in a pocket of tag stasis.
Setting aside the complicated issue of commemorative and specialty tags, Maryland, but also Virginia, have kept the same base designs for more than two decades with only minor changes. West Virginia's plates have been the same for 15 years. D.C., aside from some typographical (and sloganistic) finagling have looked similar since 1986. And then there's the granddaddy of them all, Delaware, which hasn't changed its tag design since 1963.
"There's no political or public will to change the style of the plates," Mike Williams of the Delaware transportation department told me. "They're valued for their uniqueness and their simplicity."
But simplicity doesn't do it for everyone, I realize.
Gus Oliver of Tulsa, who serves as director of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association, was kind enough to reply to my request for a comment on the new Maryland plates and, in his opinion, the old design had "a simple but dignified look" but has "been used so long that it looks boring."
Not that the new one is any great shakes: "I don't think it is a serious contender for the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association's Best Plate Award based on past winners. It isn't particularly colorful nor does it have a strong image. ... Nevertheless, Maryland's new plate will certainly be nominated and may do better than I expect. In any event, I would imagine that the people of Maryland will be glad to see something different on their cars."
Photo by Flickr user Amy the Nurse; Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic license
June 18, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
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