Why do some US states put county names on their license plates?
October 25, 2013 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Some states print the full county names on their plates and I know a few other states indicate counties by letter or numerical codes. Why is this necessary?

This seems to be mostly prevalent in the southern states. My only experience owning a car was in Minnesota, where the standard plates contained just random letters and numbers. And strangely Florida, where my girlfriend is living temporarily, seems to have county names everywhere except Miami-Dade.

Related questions: Is this actually done mostly in southern states and if so, why? Do these states require you to re-register and get new plates if you move to a different county? Is this for tax purposes? Isn't this all rather inefficient? And what's up with Florida?
posted by theory to Law & Government (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, in the southern state I've lived in, some counties required you to get your car inspected annually, and others didn't. If your car had a plate from an inspection-requiring county and you didn't have the appropriate inspection stickers, you'd get pulled over.
posted by jayder at 1:09 PM on October 25, 2013

Miami-Dade is not the only county to get rid of the county names, it's up to the county, IIRC. They were removed because of tourist killings. Lemme go dig up the cite ....
posted by tilde at 1:11 PM on October 25, 2013

Here's a relevant bit from this Wikipedia page:
Several states—Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee—place the full name of the county of registration explicitly on their standard-issue plates but not as part of the plate serial. Florida allows its residents to choose either "Sunshine State" or "In God We Trust" slogans instead of their county, and in Miami-Dade County, all plates are issued with one of these slogans due to the targeting for crimes of cars registered there in the early 1990s.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:12 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't answer most of your questions but Montana has a slew of licence plate options (standard and specialty), some have a county designation using numbers that apparently were assigned based on population of the county. This article has info on MT.
posted by adorap0621 at 1:14 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

This details part of the license plate number affecting the targetting of tourists/rental vehicles.
In 1994, Florida responded to a rash of tourist killings in the state. They discontinued the use of special "Lease" plates on rental cars, which could help thieves identify tourists. In 1995-96, they further gave counties the option to remove the county name from plates and return to the "Sunshine State" slogan. This would help make it more difficult for rentals to be identified by the county (more rental cars would be registered in tourist-friendly counties). Only two counties took advantage of this option, Dade and Bay, more or less defeating the purpose. This is one of those plates without the county name.
More info later on in the page, that explains how more counties have them available now. Takes about 5 years for plates to cycle out. Apparently now we can get "IN GOD WE TRUST" instead of "SUNSHINE STATE" but I didn't pick out our plates so I didn't know that. The more you know!

Do these states require you to re-register and get new plates if you move to a different county?

Not in Florida. And theoretically you can buy your yearly "tags" (update sticker good for a year or two depending on what you pay) in any county; I've bought them in the county I didn't live in/wasn't registered with the car with several times, though probably at a fee-express place (you pay the tax plus a convenience fee).
posted by tilde at 1:21 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Quora has an answer for this:
It goes back to the beginning of car registration and license plates. Here in Iowa, license plates were first issued in 1922. License plates were issued at a county level, so each plate featured a two-digit county number (Iowa has 99 counties) on the left hand side and the car's specific license number in the middle. Each county started with #1 and worked their way up. So there would be 99 cars with a license plate of "1" but each would be from a different county.
posted by the jam at 1:30 PM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I can answer the deal with Florida. They used to put the county name on all the plates, and leased and rental cars had plates that said "Lease" on them.

So it was SUPER easy to identify tourists in rental cars. In the early 1990's theives would cause minor accidents with "Lease County" vehicles, get the tourists to pull over, and then rob them.

These were called "bump and run" and it was rampant! When a German tourist was killed, and the ensuing bad press made a vacation in Florida about as appealing as a vacation in Detroit, the county decided the hell with it, and went to a simple FLORIDA on the back of the license and that was that.

Seriously, people were petrified to drive in Broward and Dade county with LEASE tags because it was so pervasive.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:19 PM on October 25, 2013

This Wikipedia article talks about the history of license plates in Alabama, starting with state-issued plates in 1911 and introducing county codes as prefixes to the numbers in 1942. Neither site addresses the question of why - the plates are state-issued, not county-issued. It wasn't always done that way, it was introduced later. beats me.

All I know is, my mom had all the counties memorized in alphabetical order since her high-school days, and when we (living very rural) saw a plate that wasn't our county or the neighboring one, Mom would rattle down the list until she got to the number, and we'd discuss how far from home that person was. Whatever the real purpose was, I doubt it was solely for the entertainment of small children whose mothers were trivia-fiends.
posted by aimedwander at 2:32 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Until Indiana switched to a new numbering system on their plates a few years ago, you could identify what county a car was from by the two numerals and the single letter at the beginning of the plate number. With the new numbering system, they've gone to putting the county name on the plates.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:03 PM on October 25, 2013

Just for international comparison, the first 1-3 letters of German number plates indicate where a car is registered, with big cities like Munich getting one letter (M in that case) and littler places up to 3 (Dachau is DAH). No-one seems to know why, but it lets you spot where people come from, which is always interesting I suppose...
posted by prentiz at 4:55 PM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

My guess is that it's for the convenience of the police. If it's nighttime and you are a long way from home, you are automatically a suspicious character.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:15 PM on October 25, 2013

I can answer the deal with Florida. They used to put the county name on all the plates, and leased and rental cars had plates that said "Lease" on them.

Removing "LEASE" from the license plates made it harder, but not impossible, to tell that something was a rental. Before the "SUNSHINE STATE" option got into full swing, if a car had plates from a medium-sized county on the other side of the state, a June expiration sticker, and looked like a typical rental car, there was a pretty good chance it was a rental car.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:24 PM on October 25, 2013

How else will I recognize the bad drivers from the next county over?
posted by Hatashran at 9:06 PM on October 25, 2013

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