A vanity plate or personalized plate (US), prestige plate, private number plate, or personalised registration (UK) or custom plate or personalised plate (Australia and New Zealand) is a special type of vehicle registration plate on an automobile or other vehicle. The owner of the vehicle will have paid extra money to have his or her own choice of numbers or letters, usually forming a recognisable phrase, slogan, or initialism on their plate. Sales of vanity plates are often a significant source of revenue for North American provincial and state licensing agencies. In some jurisdictions, such as the Canadian province of British Columbia, vanity plates have a different color scheme and design.
In 2007, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) and Stefan Lonce, author of License to Roam: Vanity License Plates and the Stories They Tell, conducted North America's first state by state and province by province survey of vanity plates, revealing that there are 9.7 million vehicles "vanitized" with personalized vanity license plates.
The survey ranked jurisdictions by "vanity plate penetration rate", which is the percentage of registered motor vehicles that are vanitized. Virginia has the highest U.S. vanity plate penetration rate (16.19%), followed by New Hampshire (13.99%), Illinois (13.41%), Nevada (12.73%), Montana (9.8%), Maine (9.79%), Connecticut (8.14%), New Jersey (6.88%), North Dakota (6.51%) and Vermont (6.11%). Texas had the lowest vanity plate penetration rate (.56%).
According to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2005 there were 242,991,747 privately owned and commercial registered automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles in the U.S., which means that 3.83% of eligible U.S. vehicles are vanitized.
Ontario had the highest Canadian vanity plate penetration rate (4.59%), followed by Saskatchewan (2.69%), Manitoba (1.96%), the Yukon (1.79%), and the Northwest Territories (1.75%). British Columbia had the lowest vanity plate penetration rate (.59%).
According to Statistics Canada, in 2006 there were 14,980,046 registered motor vehicles (excluding buses, trailers, and off-road, farm and construction vehicles) in the provinces and territories that issue vanity plates, which means that 2.94 % of eligible Canadian vehicles are vanitized.
The survey also found that vanity plates are issued by every state and the District of Columbia, and every province, except for Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
In some states and provinces, optional plates can also be vanity plates and are a choice of motorists who want a more distinctive personalised plate. However, the maximum number of characters on an optional plate may be lower than on a standard-issue plate. For example, the U.S. state of Virginia allows up to 7.5 characters (a space or hyphen is counted as 0.5 character) on a standard-issue plate, but only up to 6 characters on many of its optional plates.
In some states, a motorist may check the availability of a desired combination online.
All U.S. states and Canadian provinces that issue vanity plates have a "blue list" of vanity plates that contains banned words, phrases, or letter/number combinations. The U.S. state of Florida, for example, has banned such plates as "PIMPALA", while the state of New York bans any plates with the letters "FDNY", "NYPD", or "GOD", among others. Often the ban is to eliminate confusion with plates used on governmental vehicles or plates used on other classes of vehicles. However, a licensing authority's discretion to deny or revoke "offensive" vanity plates is finite. For example, some U.S. motorists have successfully sued their state governments on that issue under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The "blue list" is not definitive; in general, the agent processing an application for a vanity plate can reject a plate if it is deemed offensive, even if the phrase does not match a banned word exactly. State DMVs have received complaints about offensive vanity plates. In this case, the DMV can revoke a plate if it is deemed offensive, even if it were previously approved.
In some cases, a plate that has already been issued can be recalled and stripped from the vehicle's owner if the plate's message is found to be in violation after it has been issued. Some notable cases are:
- In 2002, a Florida man was stripped of his plates that read "ATHEIST", but was then allowed to keep them.
- A Virginia woman lost her plates that read "HAISSEM" (messiah spelled backwards).
- In 2007, a South Dakota woman nearly lost her vanity plates that read "MPEACHW" (meaning "impeach W"), but the decision to remove them was later reversed.
In the United Kingdom, number plates are issued by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). They do not approve personalised registrations if they contain words which are offensive in any widely used language. UK plates have to match certain very strict letter/number combinations, including the following:
- XXX 999
- 999 XXX
- XXX 999 X
- X 999 XXX
- XX 99 XXX
For ordinary registrations, many of the letters are fixed; for example, in the first four above, the second and third letters (and in the fifth the first two letters) have to correspond to the original registration district of the car, and not all combinations have ever been used. In the first four, the numbers can be one, two, or three digits.
Registrations can be sold, or transferred from one vehicle to another, with some restrictions. Originally the only vanity plates allowed to be transferred were ordinary registrations that had been transferred, but in the 1990s the DVLA began selling personalised registrations unrelated to the registration districts.
There is some additional flexibility available by using numbers that resemble letters (e.g., S for 5), or by using large black-headed screws to fix the plate to the car to fill in a gap. However, the font style, size, and spacing is mandated by law, making the practice illegal.
Some plates only acquire significance because of particular owners. For example, "COM 1C" was formerly owned by the comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, magician Paul Daniels had "MAG1C", the 1967 plate "BEL 12E" is owned by the Belize High Commission, and "CHN 1" is owned by the Chinese embassy.
In the UK, there are a large number of private dealers who act as agents selling DVLA registrations, as well as their own stock - often purchased at auction or from private sellers.
"VIP 1" was advertised "as one of the most important and impressive number plates ever issued". It is a registration issued in the Republic of Ireland for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1984. The plate was used on his "Popemobile".
In Australia the various states offer personalised plate schemes, with some states having a yearly fee to maintain the cherished number. In the Australian states of Victoria and Queensland the proceeds from the sale of custom plates and personalised plates go towards road safety activities.
, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong, Latvia, Poland, Slovenia, Iceland and Sweden also allows such license plates.
On November 19 2007, Dutch MP Paul de Krom proposed that vanity plates be introduced in the Netherlands as well, after having seen them while visiting the United States. One barrier his proposal would have to overcome would be that the RDW (the Dutch vehicle registration authority) links license plates to the actual cars as opposed to their owners.
Vanity plates in film and television
- In the television series Mythbusters, a California plate reading "NODOUDT" is featured in various episodes.
- The music video for "Soldier" by Beyonce features a plate reading "DA DURTY".
- The game show Bumper Stumpers was wholly based on guessing fake vanity license plates for cash and prizes.
- In the U.S. film Falling Down, the main character William "Bill" Foster is known through most of the film by his California plate serial: "D-FENS" (as he was employed by a defense contractor).
- In the U.S. television series Knight Rider, KITT's vanity California plate read "KNIGHT". (His evil mis-programmed prototypes, seen in two episodes, read "KARR").
- In the U.S. television sitcom Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer was mistakenly issued a set of New York plates that read "ASSMAN". It was later determined that they belonged to a proctologist. The State of New York does not allow the use of the word "ASS" on either their regular or vanity plates.
- In the Back to the Future trilogy, the DeLorean time machine's California license plates read "OUTATIME".
- One of George Lucas' early films was a science fiction vision of the future, THX 1138, starring Robert Duvall. In a later Lucas classic, American Graffiti, the 1932 Ford deuce coupe hot rod driven by John Milner has a license plate that reads "THX 138". At that time California had not changed to seven-digit plates, but this was not really a vanity plate, just a homage to the previous film.
- In the television series Trailer Park Boys the character Cyrus has a plate reading CYRUS1 mounted on the front of his Corvette. The plate is unoriginal and reflects the character's arrogance and lack of intelligence (he failed grade 10).
- In the television series Reno 911! several first season episodes open with two cops chasing a car and reading the plate into the radio. When they realize it's a vanity plate and try to figure out what it reads they end up crashing into the car.
- In the opening credits of L.A. Law, a California vanity plate reading "LA LAW" appears on the back of a Jaguar XJ6; in later episodes, the plate is mounted on a Bentley Continental R.
- In the 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit, the Pontiac Trans Am driven by Burt Reynolds (the Bandit) has a Georgia vanity plate that reads "BAN ONE" signifying his CB radio call sign "Bandit One". This was one of the first films, if not the first, to prominently feature a vanity plate. During the film, the sheriff asks a citizen if he saw the plate on the car and the citizen spells out the license plate.
- In the 1990 Columbo episode Columbo Goes to College, the car used by the Criminology Department to reconstruct the murder of Professor Rusk has a vanity plate reading "CRMNOLG".
- In the 1984 film Ghostbusters, the Ghostbusters' 1959 Cadillac Miller Meteor Ambulance has a New York vanity plate reading "ECTO-1".
- The film Elvira showed a license plate of the protagonist saying "KICKASS".
- The character DEA Agent Duncan Malloy in the 1997 film Con Air owns a car with a licence plate saying "AZZKIKR".
- The leading character Sarah Tobias in the 1988 film The Accused, had the plate "SXY SDIE".
- The character Missy from Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey has the plate "MISSY".
- The antagonist from the 2001 horror film Jeepers Creepers has the plate "BEATN U" (Be Eating You).
- In the television series Frasier, Martin registers his motor home with the plate "RDWRER" (Roadwarrior).
- In the film Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ferris borrows his friend's car which has the license plate "NRVOUS". Several other vanity plates portrayed in the film are references to other films also directed by John Hughes. (Example: "MMOM" for Mr. Mom.)
- In the film Cellular, the feisty lawyer's car has the plate "I SUE U 2".
- In National Lampoon's Vacation, a girl has the plate "LOVEME".
- In the film The Breakfast Club, the car in which Brian arrives at the school has a license plate that reads "EMC 2", which highlights the intellectual qualities of the character. The car that Andrew's father drives says OHIO ST.
- In the film Office Space, Bill Lumbergh owns a Porsche 911 with the plate "MY PRSCHE".
- The character Burt Gummer from the film Tremors has a truck with a license plate labeled "UZI 4 U".
- In Wayne's World, the vanity plate "MR. BIGG" on a limo is a key part of the film, helping Garth helping Wayne to get Cassandra.
- In the television series Veronica Mars, all wealthy family members have in their car's license plate their last name followed by a number which tells the family member he/she is. For example, the plate of Mrs. Lynn Echolls, Logan Echoll's mom, reads "ECHOLS 2".
- In the television series Who's the Boss?, Tony buys his daughter Samantha a car, which embarrasses her. He completes the gift with a vanity plate that reads "SAMSCAR", which is also the name of the episode.
- In the 2008 film Baby Mama, Carl's vanity plate says "MYGIRLROX" on a Pennsylvania vanity plate on his Camaro
- In the 1980s TV series Dallas, the character J.R. Ewing has the vanity plate "EWING 1".
- In the long-running British sci-fi TV series Doctor Who, The Doctor's vehicle (the Who-mobile) has the vanity plate "WHO 1". Since that vanity plate was already issued, the producers had to use a prop license plate during filming.
- The highest price paid for a vanity plate in the UK is £330,000 (about US$583,026), paid at auction on 7 June 2006 for "M 1", beating the previous record of £285,000 (about US$503,660) paid by Roman Abramovich for "VIP 1". It has been reported that M 1 was purchased by a man in the north-west of England, who bought the plate for his eleven-year-old son.
- The highest reported price paid for a vanity plate worldwide is USD 14 million. The vanity plate "1" was bought at an auction in Abu Dhabi on February 17, 2008. It was purchased by Saeed Khouri, a member of a wealthy Abu Dhabi family.
- Former Mayor of New York City Ed Koch is an adamant supporter of vanity plates. He has a vanity plate that reads: "MNYKOCH".
- Using official vanity plate listings from the DMV, Daniel Nussbaum wrote PL8SPK: California Vanity Plates Retell the Classics, a book of classic stories (such as the Oedipus legend), entirely in the vocabulary of vanity plates ("PlateSpeak").
- A story about a vanity plate is connected to the first ever wiki.
- A randomly-generated Florida plate which read "A55 RGY" appeared to read as "ASS ORGY" if the orange in the center of the plate is interpreted as an "O".