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Why Do Some States Still Require a Front License Plate?

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. Find a Nissan Murano for sale

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Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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51 COMMENTS

  1. I lived and worked in Europe for a number of years and my car had both plates. And yep I got caught speeding once or twice and was mailed a citation with a photo of the front of the car, my license plate AND my face in clear view. No way to argue with it. They also monitored traffic of texting and driving violators.  An unmarked car is on the roadside with a live video feed going to another marked car up the road. The video records cars approaching and if they see someone texting or even holding their phones the marked car pulls them over and issues a ticket. Boom! I can’t even imagine the police in the US doing anything like that because Americans would see it as a violation of some right they think they’re entitled to. 

  2. I’m appalled you don’t roll with two plates on your car, even though its not a legal requirement.  You know, for safety and stuff.

  3. I just moved to Maryland (2 Plate State) from Florida (1 Plate State). It was very painful to see the Subaru Dealership drill into my Subaru Impreza to put that front plate in. However, I really don’t think it looks bad at all. This might have something to do with Maryland plates being much prettier than Florida Plates. 

    I’ve only owned the Subaru for 3 months now, and it is the nicest car I’ve ever owned. I actually think it looks quite nice with the Maryland Plate on the front.
    On the other hand my Dad just bought a 2017 Chevy Volt. He lives back in Florida but it came from Connecticut so it had the holes drilled in the chrome bumper. However he found a really good solution, to put screws in and cap them with Chrome caps. It now looks quite good.
    I’ve even seen that you can put little LED lights in there which is another interesting option. Getting upset about a situation you didn’t ask for is easy, it is much more interesting to find good solutions, which can turn in to unique properties that give us all something to talk about.
  4. And think about a cyclist overtaken and sideswiped by a vehicle.  Not likely to get a picture of the rear plate, but with a GoPro or similar, the car is likely to be identified.

  5. I just bought a 2018 Land Rover Discovery. Never thought about not having a place to put a front plate until I got the plates in. There is no way to put a braket that would not totaly mess the looks up on the front end. Never was before but I am definetly against front plates now.

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