Vanity Plates: A Tramp Stamp for Your Car

November 9, 2011 § 6 Comments

I am a new resident of Charlottesville, Virginia, and I have become aware of an epidemic in this town – an epidemic of personalized license plates. I don’t intend to be hyperbolic when I say that, in my estimation, one in every ten cars here has a vanity plate.

While technically not as dangerous as other widespread diseases, such as cholera or the bubonic plague, precautions should still be taken against it. Safe sex practices can prevent against the transmission of HIV, but they cannot prevent against vanity-plate-itis. Before you know it, you could turn out to be dating a guy with this plastered over the ass of his car:

As a native Californian, this specific plate rankles me because Californians don’t usually emblazon their douchebaggery on their license plates; they let you figure it out from their driving.

In Charlottesville, however, vanity plates are displayed proudly, often surrounded  by any number of bumper stickers or window decals.

Personalized license plates present several potential problems:

1) I can’t read it. Is that a zero or an “o”? When do I pronounce the numbers for the sound and when are they just numbers? Sometimes a vanity plate just seems like a purposeful jumble of unrelated letters and numbers, and when I spend a minute and a half at a light without figuring out what it is supposed to say, I will inevitably become pissed off. And we Californians channel this kind of aggression into driving – and into yelling profanity while driving – which does not help me in my attempt to adapt to Virginian driving practices, which are the automobile equivalent of that lovey-dovey couple saying, “You hang up first.” “No, you hang up first! Teehee!” I’m constantly pleasantly surprised by how polite drivers are here, though after the red Taurus in front of me lets pedestrians cross the street for upwards of three minutes, my surprise becomes less delighted.

2) I can read it but I have no idea what it means. I walk the two miles from my place to the UVA campus most days of the week (I like walking), and I always see a parked blue pickup with a license plate reading “KID 05.” You are the fifth kid in your family? You graduated from high school/college/plumbers’ academy in 2005? While your vanity plate may have significance for you, it means squat to me. In everyday life, language is a communicative medium, and since the people most exposed to vanity plates are strangers, I think they should be decipherable to the average person. Otherwise, all the letters and/or numbers translate to is annoyance.

3. I can read it and understand it. But it’s superfluous. You don’t need a license plate reading “LEX RYDE” to let everyone know you drive a Lexus. We already know. Because you’re driving a Lexus.

4. I can read it and understand it. But I still don’t care. I simply don’t understand the need to turn your car into a permanent sign communicating your occupation/field (“ER MED” and “UVA FISIX” are two I’ve seen recently, though I’ve come across quite a few that reference medicine), family composition (“FAB 4SUM”), or general likes/dislikes (I saw “F5 TRN80” this morning; F5 is apparently the highest/most dangerous classification of tornado on the Fujita scale, one of three accepted scales for ranking hurricanes. Okay…)

Now, these are the problems vanity plates provide for me, random driver on the road, reading the sentiment you found so important that you needed to say it everyday, to every person with the use of their eyes, which, to be fair, seems to be only around 90% of drivers.

Let’s consider the problem this personalized plate creates for you, the vanity-plate-haver: it makes you memorable. “But, that’s all that I wanted! To make sure all strangers know and remember that I am a ‘CWBYS-FN!'” since the big football helmet sticker and lone star flags flapping out your windows didn’t do a good enough job.

Sometimes, though, as a driver, you don’t want to be remembered. You cut somebody off in traffic. You make an illegal left-hand turn. You accidentally scratch someone else’s car in the parking lot and just want to drive away and leave it. I’m not condoning any of these actions, but if, per se, one were to engage in such illegal and/or frowned upon actions, one wouldn’t want every person witnessing them to be able to say to the cops, “Oh yeah, I remember the license plate!” – which they will if it reads, “BBR4EVR” (I have not seen this license plate and I pray to god/dess/whatever that no such Beiber license plates exist).

Vanity plates are the tramp stamps of cars. Like a lower-back tattoo of a flower, a sun, or some tribal-ish scrolls, a personalized license plate tells strangers something about you, yes, but not something good.

Please, do the rest of the world a favor and just say no to personalized license plates. They’re called vanity plates for a reason; the thing they communicate first and foremost is their owners’ sense of self-importance.

Can this kind of egotism ever be excused? My best friend once saw a BMW with a plate that read “CAPTLST.” That plate is acceptable. Why? That man is being a douchebag on purpose.

Also, on my walk to campus one day recently, I came across this license plate:

This one is either the pinnacle of irony or a case of significance going so high over someone’s head, it’s at the height of a Southwest airplane (Fly Southwest! Your first checked bag is free!).

Not as obnoxious, by far, as vanity plates themselves, themed license plates offered by the state (showing a whale, a national park, etc. and often donating a portion of their proceeds to the cause championed on the plate) can also be a bit much, especially when a “Kids First” plate is surrounded by bumper stickers reading, “Life begins at conception!” and “GUNS SAVE LIVES!” (I saw that second one on an SUV whose bumper stickers had more text than Herman Cain thinks bills should have.)

This seems like the correct moment for me to admit that I am very tempted to connect the preponderance of vanity plates in Charlottesville with the fact that Virginia is home to many more conservatives than I am used to, but anyone who’s taken a basic social science class knows that correlation does not equal causation, so I will simply note that Charlottesville seems to have a lot of both personalized license plates and conservatives. Also, bagels. There are a shit-ton of bagel places here.

All that said, the one license plate I feel moved to defend can be found below. Using the annoying personalization option to comment on the annoying themed license plate option? I can get behind that.

Apparently the Virginia DMV has revoked this plate. See here for the disappointing details:

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§ 6 Responses to Vanity Plates: A Tramp Stamp for Your Car

  • Rene says:

    Having spent many weekends in DC and around Quantico, I totally second the insane number of vanity plates. And the nice driving. UGH. Perhaps that’s why there’s ALWAYS traffic going in and out of DC? “Oh, you merge first! It’s totally cool!” “Oh, no, you were here first. Do go ahead.” ARG JUST SOMEONE MERGE ALREADY.

  • V4N1TY PL8S R L4M3 ;) says:

    This is fucking hilarious.

  • Russ Nickel says:

    Rankle and emblazon in a single sentence? I’m impressed. And the Lic Pl8z is awesome. I would so get that if it weren’t already taken. Maybe I’ll get some other permutation.

  • Marielle says:

    My favorite plate to date, along the lines of CAPTLST and LIC PL8Z, was in NC, and read simply: VANITY. Mostly I loved that they managed to spell a whole word, and then come the irony points 🙂

  • MichaelEdits says:

    Oh, your problems with the excessive courtesy of Virginia drivers are just culture shock. I’ve returned to North Carolina after 12 years in Asia, and the excessive courtesy of my own people is always unexpected, but I’m learning to roll with it.

  • dep31 says:

    Oh, I dunno. We’ve got four kids and are considering a 12 passenger van… might have to get plates that say “BESTILL”. Just for the laughs.

    I like vanity plates when they’re snarky.

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