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Why Do Some States Still Require a Front License Plate?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro October 2016

Hello, readers of Oversteer, and welcome to today's Ask Doug, a weekly column where you ask Doug something, and then Doug carefully mulls it over for a while before deciding to instead publish the letter from the reader with the funniest name.

If you want to participate in Ask Doug, you can! Just email me at OversteerDoug@gmail.com, or drop me a note on my Facebook page. Although I cannot promise you that I'll answer your question on the site, I can promise you that I'll intently read your note while listening to Jimmy Eat World and watching "Gilmore Girls" -- my two favorite activities.

This week's letter, however, isn't something you can just cast aside while listening to Emily Gilmore argue with Lorelai. It's about a topic that's proven rather controversial in the past: front license plates. It's from a reader in Raleigh, North Carolina -- a state with only rear license plates -- whom I've named Chet. Chet writes:

Doug,

Avid reader and proud owner of one of the seven remaining unmodified IS 300s. Here's my question: Why do some states still require a front license plate? As an Ohio native, it would drive me crazy, especially since all the bordering states didn't require it. There's something ghastly about spending $35,000 on a new car and watching the sales guy drill holes in a freshly painted front bumper. I always felt it was worth the occasional $25 ticket to not put such an abomination on the carefully styled facade of my car. What gives? Is there some sort of prison workers' lobby that keeps this practice alive?

Chet in Raleigh

It's unfortunate that Chet started this note with the phrase "avid reader," because I have a sneaking suspicion he won't be one after he reads my reply. That's because when it comes to front license plates, I take an unusual stand: I support them. This goes against everything car enthusiasts say and think. Ask car enthusiasts about government regulations, and they'll tell you they'd rather not have side mirrors because it makes cars look more streamlined.

The primary reason I'm in support of front license plates is obvious: for safety. I know it's absolutely unfathomable to any car enthusiast whose sports car has a pointy front end, but there are many situations in which front license plates actually help solve crimes -- including dozens of locations where witnesses (and security cameras) are only able to view vehicles from the front.

I know, I know: This is blasphemous. How is it possible that a vehicle can only be sighted from the front and not the rear? Really, there are dozens of ways. Imagine a store robbery where a car pulls into a parking space, the occupants rob the store, and then the car backs out. Imagine a hit-and-run where a camera only looks at a street from one angle. Imagine a situation where police know what car a suspect is driving and spot it on camera at a gas station where it's only seen on camera getting gas from one angle.

It's hard to predict every situation, but really, you could go for days with all the possibilities -- and it becomes very clear that public safety is enhanced and law-enforcement capability is improved when you're able to identify a vehicle from either end.

Interestingly, this argument is a total non-issue in the rest of the civilized world. In fact, it's even a non-issue in the uncivilized world. Aside from 18 U.S. states and a few Canadian provinces, every single other country requires two license plates. This isn't even something that's discussed in Japan, Germany, Australia, Mexico or Brazil. In these places, the mere idea that a vehicle would exist without two license plates is met with stupefied chortles from law enforcement.

And so, Chet from Raleigh, you should be happy that you live in a state that only requires one license plate. Because ultimately, license plates aren't about making your car look cool -- they're about law enforcement, and there's little doubt that law enforcement would rather be able to identify your vehicle whether it's coming and going in the event that you decide to knock off a liquor store.

Now, I admit, I've benefited from one-plate state rules, as I've exclusively lived in one-plate states for the last 10 years. But if my state passed a rule tomorrow that mandated the use of two plates, I would happily stick my front license plate on without complaint. It just makes sense.

Of course, now that I've said this, I've drawn the ire of automotive enthusiasts in support of only one license plate, a group that includes every single car enthusiast except for me. But don't forget: We, as a society, are allowed to have differences in opinion and thought. After all, there are people out there -- good, decent human beings -- who purchased a Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet with their own money. We all have our peculiarities.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Why Do Some States Still Require a Front License Plate? - Autotrader