Tag Archives: license plates

Obscured license plates and tolls

The in basket: Larry Blain writes, “A few days ago I was once again behind a vehicle with a bike rack completely obscuring the rear license plate. This set me thinking.

“Whether that is legal or not (I suspect not), what is the percentage of the vehicles crossing the Narrows Bridge that the automated license reading equipment are unable to identify?  I can see this happening from hidden license plates such as I observed, paper license plates on darkly tinted windows on newly licensed vehicles, and out-of-state vehicles.

“Since the same problem also would apply to tolled HOV lanes and the SR-520 Bridge, the amount of lost revenue probably is significant.

“Is any effort made to identify vehicles with unrecognizable license plates that are repeatedly observed by the cameras?

“I hope the state DOT has some statistics on this.”

The in basket: The state’s toll division answers, “The toll equipment photographs the front and rear license plates, so if the rear one is obscured, we can still read the front one. Per state law, front plates are required for all vehicles issued a front plate.

“Our toll equipment takes photos only of the area of the vehicle around the license plate, because it is illegal to photograph the inside of vehicles.

“We have agreements with the other states that they will provide us the vehicle owner’s registered address so we can send a bill to that address.

“If the license plate recognition software is unable to automatically read the license plate, then the plates will be manually reviewed by customer service. Unreadable license plates account for only about 1.5 percent of the total trips on our toll facilities.”


Larry Blain.

Obscured rear plates and missing front ones

The in basket: Bob Hulet writes to say he sees many vehicles “with the rear license plate blocked by scooters, ice chests, bikes and dark grey plastic. I thought rear license plates are supposed to be exposed but it appears as no one is concerned about this anymore,” he said.

“Should situations like this be reported and to who, and how do you report it if you can’t read the plates?”

“There are also a large amount of vehicles no longer displaying the plates on the front, as they chose to put on organizational plates or none at all,” he added. “A lot of sports cars are in violation of this, as the manufacture doesn’t put a place for the plate.”

The out basket: State Trooper Russ Winger says, “Troopers do encounter the situations you describe where license plates are obscured by attachments to the vehicle such as trailer hitches and trailer hitch racks. Another situation encountered is the use of dark tinted license plate covers as well as oversize license plate frames that may obscure all or parts of license tabs. All of these situations are violations of (state law) and as such can get you stopped by a trooper or any other law enforcement officer.” So is having a plate covered with dirt.

“Our troopers are trained and expected to stop violations of the various motor codes, which they can and do,” Russ continued. “The enforcement taken is left up to the individual trooper. Many situations are temporary, such as a vehicle hauling bikes with a bumper rack or some other case where the plate is temporarily obscured. We expect our troopers to make a reasonable common sense decision on any enforcement. Actual citations are rare.

“In more permanent situations where plates are obscured such as with a bumper hitch ball (usually only a single letter or number obscured) or tinted plate covers which can decrease the readability of the license, the troopers still makes a judgment call on actual enforcement. A corrective notice, if warranted, can be issued if the trooper feels that the violation should be corrected immediately or as soon as practical. If the corrective action is not taken within the allotted time period then the trooper has the option to actually issue a citation to the driver.

“There is also an officer safety issue with obscured license plates,” he said. “Troopers radio in the location and license plate of the vehicle being stopped. If the officer cannot read the plate clearly, day or night, and calls in the incorrect or partial license plate, if something goes wrong and the vehicle flees, valuable information may be lost.”

When late Trooper Tony Radulescu was killed, the fact he had radioed in the correct license number of the killer’s car before getting out of his car led to quick identification of the suspect, Russ added. “What may seem to be a simple violation such as an obscured license plate may well be more important than one might initially think.”

I have written before that I can spot a car or truck without a front license plate at least once among any 40 I see coming at me on the highway, even though they are legally required. Last week, I saw three in a string of 20. None were older antique cars that are entitled to have only a rear plate, as I am reminded whenever I write about this, and as I was again this time in a reader comment.

I have to assume law enforcement officers have other things that demand their attention than pulling over vehicless for license plate violations.

Deputy Scott Wilson, spokesman for the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Department, agrees. “When the opportunity presents itself,” he said, “sheriff’s deputies will stop vehicles (for this) and question the driver / registered owner and take action as deemed appropriate.

“However… as you surmised, most of the time deputies are dealing with issues considered more urgent and they have to ignore the violation for the time being.  Additionally, they may notice the plate violation but not be in a position where they can safely conduct a vehicle traffic stop without incurring a risk of creating a traffic safety hazard by doing so.”


Reasoning behind WSP license designation

The in basket: Bremerton’s Byrd Thibodaux, as he’s calling himself these days, says, “Every state and local license plate I’ve seen has XMT on it, but not those of the Washington State Patrol. Why do they not have State XMT plates?  Does the WSP pay extra for these type plates?

“I’ve been told that the registration for unmarked state cars (like for investigators) has a fictitious name/address on the registration record.  Why is that needed since only authorized persons can access DOL vehicle registration records?” he asked.

The out basket: Brad Benfield of the state Department of Licensing, says, “Our state’s confidential license plate program provides two options for government and law enforcement agencies that would like to put ‘regular’ license plates on a government-owned vehicle used for law enforcement purposes.

“These agencies can choose to have the vehicle record reflect the agency’s ownership and include the agency name and address on the vehicle record,” he said. “This is the option most commonly chosen when an agency is using an “unmarked” vehicle and doesn’t want it to stand out based on the license plates.

“The second option is getting a confidential plate that shows a fictitious registered owner name and address on the record. This option is used when a vehicle is being used for undercover operations when the ownership of the vehicle, if discovered, could jeopardize an ongoing investigation or endanger the safety of officer using the vehicle.

“When these types of plates are issued to an agency, we also provide a registration certificate that include the fictitious name and address provided by the agency applying for the undercover plate. This is important in case a passenger sees the registration, the undercover officer is required to show it for some reason, or the vehicle is broken into.

“While it is certainly true that access to vehicle records is limited, there are situations where individuals or businesses with access to vehicle records could come across this information and potentially jeopardize an investigation. For example, this could happen if the vehicle is towed or gets a ticket in a private parking lot. And, of course, the need to have a truly confidential license plate is very important if an officer from a law enforcement agency is called on to investigate an officer from another law enforcement agency.

“The Washington State Patrol does take advantage of the confidential plate program along with other local, state and federal agencies,” Brad said.

Trooper Russ Winger, spokesman for WSP here, added, “The WSP plates are used on marked and unmarked patrol vehicles are the officer’s badge number. These plates follow the officer when they are assigned another vehicle due to fleet rotation, when the officer moves to a new geographic work location or when the officer changes badge numbers due to promotion. The WSP pays DOL for the set initially ($3 per set) and the plates are used until they are worn or damaged beyond reasonable usage,” Russ said. “This is cost effective in that the WSP does not have to buy a new set each time a car is issued. I do not know the cost of supplying XMT plates but I don’t think it could be substantially different.”


Be sure your plate number is on your bridge toll account

The in basket: Bob Simonoff has been having trouble in the form of citations from the state’s Good to Go! office for not paying the toll to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

He crosses the bridge a few times a week in his work van, and had no trouble until February, when he got a citation after one crossing. Unfortunately, that one got lost in the mail, so he didn’t know he had a problem of it until after he got two more in April.

His main problem, he learned, was that he didn’t think to register his van’s new license plates with Good to Go! after the state required him to get new ones as part of its every-seven-year plate replacement program.

He suggested my readers would benefit if I mentioned in the column the need to get new plates listed in  one’s toll account.

The out basket: And so I shall. If you are one of thousands with Good to Go! toll accounts who are told each year you must replace your plates, be sure to go on line or call Good to Go! with the new plate’s number so your account can be updated.

Janet Matkin of the toll office said, “Although I don’t know the specifics of (Bob’s) case, my guess is that his transponder stopped working for some reason and when we tried to identify his vehicle by his license plate number, the new plate number wasn’t on the account.

“Anytime that a vehicle doesn’t have a good read from a transponder,” she said, “we capture a photo of the license plate and then run that plate number against a list of Good To Go! account holders before sending it through the violation process. If he’d had his correct plate registered, we would have charged his Good To Go! account for the toll.

“This summer,” she added, “(we) will be introducing Pay By Mail to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, so vehicles that use the electronic toll lanes and don’t have Good To Go!accounts (or who don’t have their correct license plate numbers registered on their accounts) will be sent a Toll Bill in the mail, rather than automatically being sent a violation notice.

The toll rate will $5.50 for Pay By Mail, higher than the toll otherwise, to cover the costs of processing and sending a Toll Bill. “But, that is substantially less than the $52 violation notice that they would receive now,” Janet said

Account holders also “should remember to remove the license plate number from their account if they sell a vehicle,” she said.

Lastly, she said, “You also might want to suggest that if they have guests visiting from out of the area or they are renting a car, they can temporarily add the license plates numbers to their account and not have to worry about stopping at the toll booths.”

Photo enforcement of tolls brings inquiry

The in basket: Charles Baker of Silverdale writes, “I’ve seen a good deal written about the proposals moving along toward cameras being used to photograph license numbers of  those who don’t use the toll booth and don’t have ‘Good to Go!’ stickers.

“All I’ve read indicates the Tacoma Narrows Bridge authority feels they will have no problem looking up license numbers and billing those drivers for the toll – and problem payers can be dealt with come renewal time.

“What I have read nothing about is how well this system will work for drivers with out-of-Washington-state plates. Do visitors and those military out-of-staters get a free pass?  I doubt the other states (and countries) are setting up a ‘help Washington’ program to identify these people.  Any discussion of this issue you’ve heard?”

While I was inquiring, I asked about plates too dirty to be read, as well.

The out basket: Janet Matkin, the state’s tolls communication manager, replies, “We have reciprocal agreements with all the other states to obtain the name and address of out-of-state drivers.

“We take photos of both front and back license plates, in order to ensure we get a clear image of the majority of license plates,” she also said.

Look closely at your new license plates

The in basket: Sharon Vancil of South Kitsap had the pleasure of replacing the license plates on her 1998 CRV in January, but was surprised to get only one plate. Knowing that the  law requires front and back plates, she wondered what she should do.

The out basket: Before I even got an inquiry turned in to the state, Sharon had solved her own mystery, and the answer might save some of you readers the same puzzlement in the future.

She called the county auditor’s office where she’d gotten the plate and an employee said that today’s plates are so thin, they stick together and appear to be a single plate.

And, sure enough, when she looked closely, there were two plates after all.

It reminded me of the mess I made the first time I tried to stick a Good to Go! transponder to my windshield and I tried to peal the backing off the wrong side.

Anyway, when the state’s mandatory every-seven-year plate replacement hits you,

if you think you’ve gotten only one plate, look again.

Won’t online driver’s license renewal outdate the photos?

The in basket: Deann Irish thinks its an odd paradox that the state insists that we replace our car license plates every seven years so that the reflectivity of the plates is good and police can see them at night, while the state has introduced online renewal of one’s driver’s license that reuses one’s old license photo on the new license.

Isn’t a current photo of a person stopped by the police a lot more important than a reflective plate, she asked.

The out basket: Brad Benfield of the Department of Licensing says the department and state patrol are aware of that problem, and have put limitations on online renewal to address it. Not everyone is allowed to do it, and no one can do it every time his or her license expires.

“Maintaining a good photo of our licensees was certainly a discussion point when we developed our online renewal process,” he said. They consulted Washington State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies before introducing online renewal,

 “The first requirement that addresses this is not allowing online renewals to occur two times in a row. If you take advantage of online renewal, you will have to come in to a DOL office to renew the next time your license expires, generally in five years. You can renew online only once between trips to our office for a new picture.

 Further, he said, “An individual’s facial appearance changes most when that individual is young and when they begin to show the physical signs of aging. To address this, we don’t allow individuals who are younger than 25 or older than 65 to use this system. We determined that inside of this range, having a picture updated every 10 years is satisfactory.”  

I also asked Brad about online renewal of the new enhanced driver’s licenses and ID cards and whether there is any weakening in the state’s resolve to force replacement of license plates every seven years. 

He said the EDLs must be renewed in person every time. As for continued plate replacement, he said, “There have been legislative proposals in recent years to repeal it, but they haven’t passed.”

Vulgar license plate holders OK if they don’t cover the plate

The in basket: Susan Hinckley-Porter of Poulsbo said in July, “I was recently sitting in the Seattle to Bainbridge ferry line and observed a car with a license plate holder that had the following message: ‘Lifetime island resident with bad attitude, f— UW, f— the city, f— CA, f— BC.’ 

“I understand that there are certain words that can not be used on a license plate, but what about the frame holding the license plate?” she asked.

The out basket: I told her that it wouldn’t be actionable if it was on a T-shirt, so it probably would be just as permissible (and as offensive) on a license plate holder. 

That’s true, says Brad Benfield of the state Department of Licensing. “We don’t have any jurisdiction over a license plate frame or holder,” he said. “However, if the frame or holder is such that it makes (the plate) difficult to read, then law enforcement can step in.”

Can proposed system track lapsed license tags?

The in basket: Jim Thompson of Manchester in South Kitsap read the story in the Sept. 5 Kitsap Sun about the system Bremerton is close to employing that will automatically scan license plates on cars an officer’s patrol car passes and signal the officer if any of the plates are from stolen cars, or are associated with wanted felons or an Amber alert for a missing child.�

Jim thought it also would alert the officer to those with license tabs that hadn’t been renewed in time, notably those with renewal dates that have passed, but are still within the month shown on the tab.

The out basket: Won’t happen, says Lt. Pete Fisher of the Bremerton police traffic division. The scanner is linked to the National Criminal Information Computer (NCIC), so any “hits” will be on information that data base stores. License tab status is on the state Department of Licensing data base, but not NCIC, so there is no chance the scanner would reveal such a delinquency, he said.