Here’s Why My License Plate Has a Lightning Bolt

The most common question people ask me about my car has nothing to do with the car itself, but rather my license plate. "How did you get a lightning bolt?" Most people have never seen this before. Some states, like New Hampshire, allow a wide variety of extra characters on their plates, such as plus and minus signs, and California even allows a heart. But nowhere else have I seen a lightning bolt on a plate. So what does it mean?

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts uses the lightning bolt to designate an amateur radio operator license plate. The plate number is the owner’s call sign, as issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). A lightning bolt appears in the middle of it to identify it as a type of special plate. Why a lightning bolt? Who knows. Maybe they think our antennas are going to get hit by lightning or something.

This is one of the state’s numerous types of special plates, like those for military veterans or Boston Bruins fans. It’s not a vanity plate, which is more expensive. The only amateur radio plate number you are allowed to have is your current FCC-issued amateur radio call sign. You actually have to submit a copy of your FCC license to the Registry of Motor Vehicles when applying for such a plate to prove that you qualify, and to give them the call sign for your plate.

New York, on the other hand, has a very clear and aesthetically pleasing amateur radio plate. It, too, features the owner’s call sign, but also specifically states that it is an amateur radio plate, and has a nice picture of a radio tower with the state of New York in the background. Below the picture is a snippet of Morse code. While knowing Morse code isn’t a requirement to get a license anymore, it’s still an integral part of the hobby, which is reflected here. It says "CQ DE," which translates to "seek you, from" followed by your call sign. This is how people put out a call that they’re looking to strike up a conversation — a sort of "breaker 19," if you will.

Other states don’t have an amateur radio category at all for license plates. Instead, you have to use a standard vanity plate. The good news is that it’salmost certain that your call sign will be available — since, to anyone except a ham radio operator, a call sign is just a bunch of random numbers and letters. The only person who would want this particular combination of numbers and letters would be the holder of the call sign. When I lived in Maine I had the vanity plate "WT&NRDY," a reference to the song "White and Nerdy" by Weird Al Yankovic, because, well, I am. But I also had my previous call sign on my Maine license plate at times, since Maine is one of the states that has no separate category for us.

But now, I live in Massachusetts. We have a special category for amateur radio plates, but it’s poorly marked, and nobody knows what it is. It’s so obscure that even law enforcement doesn’t know how to check it sometimes. One time I had a roadside chat with an officer of the law who justifiably took issue with the velocity at which I was enjoying a twisty back road. When he came back, he actually apologized for taking so long because he had trouble figuring out how to run my plate, specifically the lightning bolt. He then started asking me questions about amateur radio, out of curiosity rather than accusation for having a funny plate. We then spent more time casually talking about radio than the original reason for the traffic stop. (Even better, he let me off with a warning.)

One would think that with the proliferation of the internet, smartphones and apps like Zello, which emulate two-way radio communication with no need for a license, amateur radio would be a dying relic of an old generation. They even joke that the average age of an amateur radio operator is dead. But according to the American Radio Relay League, the number of licensed amateur radio operators is higher than ever, with more than 30,000 new licenses issued over the past four years.

Part of the reason for this is that despite rapid advances in communication technology, it can all come crashing down in a disaster when communication is needed most. Stage rally events set up their own amateur radio communication networks, which was priceless for preventing the forest from burning down when Ken Block’s rally car turned into a fireball. Amateur radio is also slowly replacing CB and FRS radio in the off-road community, thanks to its superior range and better signal quality.

Not all amateur radio operators choose to display their call signs on their cars or license plates — and I can only have my call sign on one car, so the Volkswagen Jetta Ute has an ordinary plate. But I think it’s great to see these plates on the road. You instantly know that the owner is a kindred spirit with a similar interest in communication as you. Although the old tradition of tooting a quick "di-di-di-dit di-dit," or "hi," on the horn has fallen by the wayside as fewer amateurs know Morse code, it’s still fun to find them on the road.

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