If you’ve been kicking around long enough, you’ll recall when you got new licence plates every year. Forget those little annoying stickers for the corner; from the year plates were first introduced in Ontario (1911), with the exception of a couple of years for the war effort, new plates were issued each year until the sticker solution took over in 1973.
It was easier, if more wasteful. We had the same plate forever (MFP 161) until it was joined by a second car (TMD 482). Like our home phone number, also long gone, I can still recite them. The plates moved from car to car as we acquired new ones, unlike today where a metal alphabet soup is affixed to your newest addition as you hold your breath praying it doesn’t start with BBPB and sound like your plate is blowing a raspberry at you.
Of course you can keep your present plates. It’s just hard to attach something that might be rusty or bent to something shiny and new. In love with your original tags? You can always order the same ones again – but the catch is that they will now be considered personalized licence plates, and cost you $215.65 vs the $20 charge for next-in-line. Regardless, if I ever find myself in possession of an orange 1976 AMC Matador wagon, MFP 161 is going right on it.
Section 13 of The Highway Traffic Act is clear on your responsibility as a driver for maintaining your plates. “Every number plate shall be kept free from dirt and obstruction…” This means you have to clear the snow and mud from it, as well as deal with things like rust or fading. But what about those plate covers that are sold all over? According to Ajay Woozageer at the Ministry of Transportation, they do “not endorse or promote the sale, purchase or use of licence plate covers.” There’s a good reason for it.
According to Constable Clinton Stibbe with Toronto Traffic Services, some of those covers act the same way privacy screens do on a computer. Unless viewed directly head on, they obscure the plate number. For police, they are more concerned with intent and education than issuing you that $110 ticket.
“Technically, you can be ticketed for any obscurity on the plate. Only the two screws that hold it on are supposed to be there – technically,” says Stibbe. What about dealer plate holders, or salt or rust corrosion? “Again, we’re looking at intent. If a driver is pulled over and warned that something is making the plate unclear, they’ll be asked to correct it. If that same car is pulled over again two weeks later with the same problem, that’s when we’re going to ticket it.”
A bigger issue? A burned out light over that rear plate. Rendering the tag invisible at night, this is a sure-fire way to draw attention to you. For an officer approaching a stopped or abandoned car, that licence plate is often the only input they have. For the rest of us, calling authorities about a dangerous situation means offering up all the info we can get – partial plates are useful if that’s all we can catch as a drunk flies by us, but if the plate is obscured it makes it that much harder.
Of course there are those who make their money off of clear plates: toll roads. Calls to the 407ETR weren’t returned; I just wanted to know what people have tried, and more importantly, what has worked, and what hasn’t worked. I’ve been charged when I haven’t been on that road; if they can create my tag number out of thin air, I’m curious how they hunt down those actual – if obscured- users. I’ve heard of people covering their rear plate with decorative spray on snow (it slides off), or hanging a load off the back. Actually, I’ve heard some pretty intricate methods where I come away thinking it would be cheaper to just pay the toll then spend so much time trying to circumvent it.
From the inadvertent obscuring to the purposeful: many publications have long blurred out licence plate numbers. If you publish a photo of your vehicle on the web, should you obstruct the plate? How much information can someone really get from it? According to Woozageer, quite a lot, actually. If you request an abstract using the plate number, the following information is available:
- owner’s name as of the date specified in the request;
- plate renewal date and renewal information;
- vehicle specific information;
- vehicle owner history;
- owner’s information (NOTE: publicly available information does NOT include any personal information, such as a vehicle owner’s home address or phone number)
In this day and age, I’d take that last reassurance with a grain of salt. I’m also wondering what the implications might be with people posting video from their dash cams, a fast growing trend.
Ontario may be mine to discover, but Canada’s best licence plates? Northwest Territorities, with its distinctive polar bear shaped tags. Possibly the only time it would be cool to have a polar bear on your tail.