LEGISLATIVE AND TECHNICAL AFFAIRS
By Neal Billig
Drill, Baby, Drill?
Single License Plates Are a Unifying Issue for Enthusiasts
The SEMA Action Network seeks to impact hundreds of legislative proposals, but no topic garners more consistent grassroots enthusiasm at the state level than single license plate proposals.
For most of the country’s automotive enthusiasts, drilling holes into the front bumper of a prized possession is both a sad and unavoidable occurrence. To them, the legal mandate to equip a license plate on their front bumper is like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.
While this dilemma is often associated with classic cars, many of their modern counterparts are also adversely impacted. The fact is, a great number of late-model cars simply weren’t designed with forward-facing license plates in mind, including recent Camaros, Mustangs, Corvettes and even Teslas. Fortunately for the owners of those cars, an ever-growing legislative trend could make their bumpers whole again.
In any given year, the SEMA Action Network seeks to impact hundreds of legislative proposals, but no topic garners more consistent grassroots enthusiasm at the state level than single license plate proposals. Single plates are one of the rare issues that resonate with all types of enthusiasts—from street rodders to modern musclecar fans. These hobbyists are unified by their passion to protect the appearance of their vehicles. While influencing the legislative process may often seem unapproachable, the popularity of single-plate proposals stems in part because they present a simple and easy-to-articulate legislative solution: 50 states with 50 single plates.
The number and types of license plates issued are regulated at the state level. As of 2019, passenger vehicles in 31 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia are required to display two license plates. Fortunately, 2019 represented the start of a new legislative session, with hundreds of fresh faces in state houses. That has led to a push to enact single-plate laws across the country. In fact, a record 10 states have considered legislative proposals aimed at the single-plate issue.
The biggest legislative success for removing front plates this year came in Ohio, where vocal advocates from the state’s hobbyist community found allies in the state capitol. Each year, Ohio’s legislature is tasked with passing an omnibus transportation budget bill that determines everything from the gas-tax rate to highway infrastructure spending improvements. The hobby’s allies fought to get a single-license-plate provision included in the final bill. Starting in 2020, the 5 million or so vehicles driven on the Ohio roadways will no longer need a front plate.
Automotive enthusiasts overwhelmingly favor single, rear-mounted license plates that do not interfere with the performance or styling of their favorite ride.
And 2019 could yield more legislative victories for single-plate advocates. Nebraska, Illinois, Texas and Missouri all have pending legislation that would remove the requirement to display a front plate on all passenger vehicles. Sadly, similar single-plate legislation failed to pass earlier this year in Utah and New Hampshire, but both states saw their proposals gain serious traction before running out of gas.
While many state legislatures were considering a transition from two plates to one, New Mexico was the lone state to consider going in the opposite direction. However, the enthusiast community’s fierce opposition to the addition of a front plate resulted in the bill failing to be considered on the House floor. It was killed as the session concluded in March, and this is the second year in the row that New Mexico legislators attempted to institute a front plate mandate only to discover they had severely underestimated the popularity of the current policy.
One of the most interesting developments in the past year has been the rise in the number of states looking into a single-plate exemption for specialty vehicles. The major advantage of these compromise bills is that they drum up less opposition from single-plate detractors and thus stand a greater likelihood of becoming law.
For off-roaders, front license plates are a nuisance when installing upgraded equipment, such as brawler bars and winches.
In 2016, Nebraska passed a law allowing owners of vehicles not originally equipped with a front bracket to request a single license plate. The successful implementation and widespread positive feedback from vehicle owners on this new policy spurred similar compromise legislation this session in Connecticut and Iowa. The Iowa bill only narrowly failed to pass the legislature, and Connecticut’s bill is still being actively considered.
So what’s in it for business? The most obvious areas of impact by front-plate requirements on the industry are in performance and styling. A tag mounted on the front end hinders one’s ability to strike a pleasing balance of form and function. The challenge of optimizing peak aerodynamics, induction and cooling—while maintaining aesthetics—are made much tougher.
The off-roading crowd favors an unobstructed body that’s ready for enhancements such as heavy-duty bumpers, guards, winches and other items. Doors can open wide to customizers seeking facelifts of vehicles new and old. An entire market could spring up for reimagined versions of factory designs where the provision for a plate is removed. The OEMs could also begin standardizing all models without any concerns of plate mounting aside from the rear.
The largest barrier to single-plate enactment is from law enforcement, which contends that front plates are a necessary part of their ability to identify vehicles. However, that need may soon be a thing of the past as the technology to create digital license plates is already here. For example, automated license-plate readers are already being used in New York. With greater technology available for vehicle identification, the future for single-plate legislation and front bumpers without holes looks bright.