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Arizona, the License Plate State

The Journal of Prevarication
By Jim Cook
Official State Liar of Arizona

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at Hank’s Frost-Free Saloon when the talk turned to license plates.

Now that the election is over, people can discuss more immediate problems, like license plates–their bewildering variety, and a new Arizona law that says policemen must be able to read what state issued the license plate.  

Art said, “I always wondered what would happen if I applied to the Motor Vehicle Division for a vanity plate that said ‘VANITY.'” Art is  one of those guys who always slew a conversation sideways.

Bob said, “Do you know that if you’re a podiatrist in New Hampshire, you get a special license plate?   I saw one Friday.”

Maybe you don’t notice license plates.  Maybe you have a life.  But it’s quiet here, and in the winter, a snowbird town like Wickenburg is rich in foreign license plates. Plates from the states north of us–Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Montana–are as common as ear lobes. 

Alaska, Colorado and Wyoming are common, too. We even see snowbirds from similarly balmy climates, like Florida and Texas. That, I have never understood.

So you look for the rare ones–Massachussets, Maine, West Virginia. Miss Ellie and I saw three of the rarest recently–Rhode Island, Maryland and Delaware.  Small states, a long ways away. But those sightings were down around Surprise. 

Ellie’s sister Kathy lives in Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, and the ferries from Washington State and Vancouver don’t bring many foreign plates to the island.  When Kathy visits us in winter, she is on the hunt for states to add to her annual list of sightings.  We went all the way to Laughlin, Nevada, last winter to find her a Kentucky plate.

Often, we’ll be following an exotic-looking plate along Grand Avenue or Bell Road while we figure out where it’s from.   

“Darn,” Kathy says, “it’s another kind of Arizona plate.” 

When I was a kid, license plates were simple.  A single letter identified the county:  A for Maricopa,  C for Cochise, J for Yavapai, and so on.  This was followed by a dash and a string of numerals: 51, or 439. 

By 1959, Maricopa County had run out of numbers, so the Motor Vehicle Division came out with a series of three letters and three numbers–or some years, three numbers followed by three letters.

MVD promised it would never use the three letters to spell words.  But by last year, they had used virtually every three-letter word you can imagine:  AXE,  COW, CAR, EYE, GAL, MOO, GOO, VEX.    

In 2008,  Arizona again ran out of number-letter combinations, so it moved to a string of seven letters and numbers, uninterrupted by  dashes. 

In the intervening years, specialty and vanity plates proliferated. We now have more than sixty kinds of plates. 

There are special plates for several kinds of veterans, including Medal of Honor winners; alumni of three state universities, and members of three Native American tribes.  If your car was built before 1915, you can buy a Horseless Carriage license plate.

Some plates speak out against child abuse, or in favor of the environment. There’s a special plate for “character education” of children, and another that says, “Live The Golden Rule.”  There’s a license plate for organ donors, and one by which amateur radio operators  display their callsigns. 

Next year, Arizona will offer special plates for sightless drivers, sleepwalkers, golfers, agnostics, insomniacs, saxophone players and tailgaters.  

Unfortunately,  it’s impossible to read the “Arizona” at the top of some license plates because of ornate license plate frames.  The plate might as well be from Newfoundland.

Technically, it’s none of my business, but I often wondered what traffic cops thought about that. They apparently did not like it. A new state law makes it illegal to obscure the state of origin.  The fine for doing so is $130, or thereabouts, depending on the jurisdiction.

A reporter for The Arizona Republic  checked the State Senate parking lot Tuesday and found that half the plates there had frames that obscured “Arizona.”

This will either be a boon to the people who manufacture license plate frames, or send them begging for a bailout.  A friend noticed that his wife’s Northern Arizona University license plate frame obscured the “Arizona” at the top of the plate, covering it with the word “Lumberjacks.”    

In sawing away most of “Lumberjacks,”  he also cut away the bolt holes that allowed the frame to be attached to their car.    

My license plate is unadorned.  The dealer apparently gave me such a good deal that he couldn’t afford a license plate frame, and I did not invest in one. 

The motto at the bottom of my plain vanilla plate is “Grand Canyon State,” the motto on Arizona plates since 1940. We might change that to “License Plate State.”

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