What’s up with that? There’s more to license plate replacement than meets the eye

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Earlier this year, the state of Washington said I needed to get new license plates for my car, as they were by then 7 years old. I’d lived in Washington from the mid-1950s through the late 1970s, and it was never an issue then. Then I spent about 30 years in California, and they never had a requirement like that. So … this leads me to wonder why Washington started requiring this. Do other states have the same requirement, or are we the only one?

— Florence Wheeler, East Minnehaha

This reporter adds: “When renewing my ancient 7-year-old plates, I discovered that it costs an extra $20 to retain the same plate numbers. Since a new number would cause some nuisances in notifying my insurance company and other official whatever, I felt compelled to fork over the extra $20. But not without a bit of swearing under my breath. Why does the status quo cost more than a change?”

A spokeswoman at the Washington State Department of Licensing said these answers are actually pretty simple, Florence.

Law enforcement concerns drove the license plate replacement requirement, she said. After seven years, license plates tend to lose their reflectivity. Police want to be able to read your plate at night, even in rain and fog. The reflective coatings and inks that are used are extremely effective — nice and bright — but not as durable as the old nonreflective stuff. Reflectivity is guaranteed for only five years, so by the time your plates hit seven years, it’s more than likely time to renew.

Though California doesn’t, other states require periodic replacement of the whole plate. Lengths of time do vary — generally between five and 10 years. In Florida, it used to be five but now it’s 10. In Minnesota and Texas, it’s also seven, as in Washington.

As to the additional $20 fee for just keeping the number you’ve got: When the state receives somebody’s license renewal application, it automatically generates a plate that bears the next number waiting in line. Keeping the same number means stepping outside of that automatic system to get a plate custom-made. So you’re definitely trading one nuisance (notifying insurance companies, employers, parking garages, etc., about your new number) for another (spending additional bucks and calling it good). What’s it worth to you?

Review a thorough description of all the rules and requirements involved in replacing your license plates.

Got a question about your neighborhood? We’ll get it answered. Send “What’s Up With That?” questions to neighbors@columbian.com.

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