Opinion: The New License Tags

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By Clayburn Peeples
Circuit Court Judge

 I’m trading the last of my old white license plates in for one of the new blue ones this week. The expiration date on our other two vehicles came and went months ago, but the truck plate is good to the end of December, so it will be one of the last vehicles in the state to change over to the new blue plates. 
Like most people, I don’t pay much attention to license plates, unless they’re from out of state. When I was a boy, I did, however, and took great pride in the fact that Tennessee’s plates were shaped like the state. We had been making them that way since the 1930s, but in 1956, the United States, Canada, and Mexico all agreed to standardize the size of license plates for all passenger vehicles at 6 x 12 inches, so the 21-year-old tradition of state-shaped license plates in Tennessee came to an abrupt halt.  
But there were other changes over the years as well. As a matter fact, state law requires plates be changed every eight years, which is why we changed over this year.  We’ve been tinkering with different ideas about license plates since the very first statewide license plate law was enacted in Tennessee, in 1905. 
Actually, the first license plate in Tennessee wasn’t a state plate at all but a city plate. The City of Memphis, in 1903, began requiring all drivers to register with the city and display an identification number on each of their vehicles.   
Two years later, the state passed a law requiring that all motor vehicle drivers register with the state and display license numbers on their vehicles.  
But drivers had to supply their own identifying numbers at first, so for a few years, there were all sorts of shapes and sizes and materials used to make early drivers’ licenses. Finally, however, in 1915, the state began issuing standardized plates.  
Over the years Tennessee license plates have sported some unusual features. Starting in 1939, for example, Tennessee license plates began with a one- or two-digit numerical county code, based on the respective populations of each county. The state continued to do that until 1965, and then picked it up again from 1971 to 1988. A lot of people used to visualize population shifts in the state by comparing the latest license plate county ranking numbers with those on previously issued tags. 
In the 1980s Tennessee began a specialty license plate program to provide a dedicated source of revenue for arts and cultural activities, but the program quickly expanded far beyond the arts, and it now includes more than 100 specialty license plates, embracing all sorts of special interest organizations, colleges and universities, branches of the military, sports teams, and other topics. Some of these plates, over the years, have stirred up controversy, and so have our new blue license plates. 
For two reasons. The first is that automatic plate readers have a difficult time reading numbers on the new Tennessee plates, especially at night. In the old days, police had to check license plates manually, but the latest recognition technology allows them to scan license plates in an instant, flagging cars with lapsed tags, locating stolen vehicles, and finding vehicles driven by persons of interest. 
Tennessee’s new blue plates, however, because of a reflectivity problem, are difficult to read, which became apparent as soon as the first plates hit the roads. The state claims to have solved that problem with scanner upgrades, but some law enforcement officers say it still exists. Time will tell. 
The other problem, actually a controversy, deals with the fact that our national motto, “In God We Trust,” is on some of the new plates. I say some of them, because the motto is optional. You can have a plate with it, or without it, whichever you choose. 
If you choose the motto plate, then the words will be wrapped around the Tennessee flag emblem, which acts as a separator between letters and numbers on the plates, and that brings up another controversy. The “In God We Trust” plates have numbers to the left of the center emblem and letters to the right. The “standard plate,” however, without the motto, uses a letters first configuration with letters to the left, and numbers to the right. 
Some people argue that the motto is discriminatory against nonbelievers and shouldn’t be on any state license plate, optional or not, but others are upset over the fact that the number/letter configurations are different on the two plates. 
Clearly different, and two distinct conspiracy theories have quickly evolved regarding that. One is that the numbers and letters are placed that way so that people can target nonbelievers, and the other holds that the two configurations are provided so the state can crack down on people of faith. 
The state has explained that the two plates are different in order to avoid duplicate issuance of sequences between the two plates, but many are still suspicious. 
And here’s the irony. The national motto is on the old plates also, and has been since 2017. It has been optional since that time, as it is now, and the same number/letter sequencing used for the two different new plates is on the old white plates as well. 
Without, presumably, any Tennessee driver being targeted because of his or her beliefs. 
Gee. It’s almost as if there’s not enough discrimination to go around for some people these days. 

Cody Bishop

Cody Bishop

Hi! My name is Cody Bishop and I'm currently working as a Graphic Designer for Magic Valley Publishing, the parent company of the Crockett County Times.

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