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A Husker sports website talks Nebraska license plates

500 “New” Vintage Chevrolets To Be Sold At Nebraska Auction Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

For those unfamiliar with this week’s news, the new Nebraska license plate was unveiled to much fanfare and criticism alike. The news brought with it a longwinded lecture by this writer in the website’s Slack channel about best practices and guidelines on vehicle tags, favorite and least favorite tags, and other useless commentary that resulted in upper management “suggesting” I write an article about the new tag and why I hate Iowa and its ugly, no good, utterly lame black and white tag, among other things (more on that and why it’s at least better than New York’s later). So without further ado, here’s [not exactly] everything you’ve ever wanted and lots you did not want to know about vehicle tags!


Nebraska’s New License Plate

The new license plate (or “tag” as you may have already noticed I frequently refer to it as) is based on a mosaic in the Nebraska State Capitol named “Genius of Creative Energy.” The new tag design will replace the 2017 redesign that was, as far as I know, roundly hated and mocked tag which was based on the Golden Sower at the top of the capitol building (after having to be redesigned after initially being modeled mistakenly on a sower on Beaumont Tower at Michigan State University). The new tag will go into production soon and Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicle customers will begin to receive them in 2023 as they renew vehicle registrations. Approximately 1.3 million registered vehicles will feature the new tag design based on current registration.


License Plate Standards and Best Practices

Some may not be surprised, but most likely will be to find that license plates are not something you can just slap whatever you want on design wise and send it to the production line. In fact, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) has a publicly available guide on industry best practices and guidelines on the matter.

These principles have been refined over decades of experience to ensure that tags are easily identifiable and readable in all roadway environments, from a sunshine filled day to a middle of the night rainstorm and by law enforcement, electronic tag readers, and other motorists just to name a few. Requirements such as fonts, reflectivity, where things can and can’t go on a tag, and a number of other matters all factor into these.

Nebraska first lady Susanne Shore made passing reference to this during the press conference earlier this week unveiling the new design when she stated “I originally thought when we started that you just find a nice attractive image and stylistically plop it on that plate and you’re ready to go. I couldn’t have been more wrong,” State law has specific design requirements mandating certain font, letter and number sizes, colors, and visibility levels all that were likely set by the State Legislature in conjunction with Nebraska DMV staff based on AAMVA guidelines.

As an example of something that would have arguably violated these guidelines, there was a briefly selected tag in 2011 that included “Nebraska.gov” at the top of the tag with “Nebraska” turned sideways to run from top to bottom along the left. AAMVA guidelines state that only the issuing jurisdiction (aka the state or province) be written in full at the top of the tag above the numbers by itself. This ensures that viewers can’t mistake postal abbreviation codes for Arkansas (AR) and Arizona (AZ), for just one of many possible instances of potential confusion. To be clear, AAMVA guidelines are not the same as Nebraska law so I am not sitting here writing the initial 2011 winner broke any laws, just currently published AAMVA guidelines issued in 2020.

For those unfamiliar with AAMVA, it is a “tax-exempt, nonprofit organization” founded in 1933 that develops “model programs in motor vehicle administration, law enforcement, and highway safety. The association also serves as an information clearinghouse in these areas and acts as the international spokesperson for these interests.”

On a final note, you may notice now that I call attention to it that the alpha-numeric print of the tags in Nebraska are exactly that, a series of printed letters and numbers. This move is growing steam across the country as a cost saving measure compared to old fashioned stamping which would raise the letters and numbers out from the tag to make them even more easily visible. If you talk to motor vehicle staff around the country who have been around for a while in their roles, you will likely get an earful how stamping should have never been done away with. I am not remotely close enough to even amateur's knowledge in the industry to have an informed opinion on this, but it is worth mentioning that it is a subject of contention by some regardless.


Changing License Plate Technology

The first license plate ever issued by a state was in 1903 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. License plates have come an awful long way since those first versions and coming soon to a vehicle near you may be some even more major changes. Right now, California’s DMV, Michigan’s Secretary of State, and Arizona’s ADOT MVD already issue what is called a digital tag as an option for customers. Other state entities such as the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration completed a pilot program in 2021 of such technology as well, the fourth to have done so.

A digital license plate uses technology similar to an Amazon Kindle to display a vehicle’s tag information on a digital ink screen. This also allows the screen to display the tag number and relevant information even without the car’s engine running to provide active electrical flow to it.

This exciting new technology offers a number of revolutionary changes to the industry including the hassle of replacing your stickers when renewing. Instead, the screen can instantly be updated wirelessly when a customer renews registration. It also offers far more potential life saving options such as the ability to display real-time Amber alerts or an alert that the vehicle was reported stolen. Some manufacturers in the industry are also claiming that a parked car could potentially sell access to the screen for commercial messaging, but that seems a stretch in many jurisdictions where parking enforcement would need access to the tag for ticketing information.

Another interesting development out of California is a front license plate wrap option for customers. Despite the fact that 31 states require a front license plate, including Nebraska, a number of vehicle manufacturers sell vehicles that do not have a front bumper capable of properly mounting a front tag on the vehicle without drilling a large hole through the vehicle. Electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla is a prime example despite being located in front tag requiring California, but legacy car companies like BMW and its 3-series are offenders as well.

The Golden State has begun to offer a wrap-on sticker for front bumpers of such vehicles that displays a picture of a tag matching the one on the back of the vehicle without the need to get a mounting bracket on the front. Compared to digital tags, this is not exactly an “exciting” development, but if you’re an owner of such a vehicle then you will likely find it welcome news you will no longer have to drill an unwanted hole in your expensive vehicle.


Ugliest License Plates

As mentioned ages ago in this article, I have a few states out there which I personally particularly hate the standard tag. Iowa and New York are two of them. The Iowa tag is essentially a throwback design in its simple black background with white font and border. I think it just ends up looking tacky. In that regard, I suppose it does fit well with the state being Iowans in general are tacky.

The Iowa tag is in contrast to the Vermont tag which is a similar older design concept of solid green with white font. In contrast to Iowa’s which looks tacky and the print rather than stamping also makes it look cheap, the Vermont one is a longstanding design feels timeless as a result and looks great.

Hands down the ugliest tag in the country in my lifetime was New York’s now discontinued Empire state tag. This one was ugly in every way possible, from the color to the bland design, nothing about this tag was pleasant and it ended up having peeling issues to boot in its final years of production that resulted in a supplier contract changing companies.

As for some of my favorite tags, some might accuse bias in the selections but happy to take the heat on that because these ones are fantastic. Michigan’s “Mackinaw” Bridge (the bridge really needs to be changed back to the English spelling to balance things out) redesign several years ago won a world’s best award in fact. However, the tag did need a redesign as the white font color make it difficult to read and was later changed to black. Again, AAMVA standards really are important folks (ignore the “Pure Michigan” along the top also arguably violating those standards). Regardless, this is a gorgeous design on a tag.

One of my other favorite alternate tag designs is Maryland’s Save the Bay tag. This one is a uniquely colorful tag that features some of best Maryland has to offer. Perhaps the next redesign of it can give a more prominent placement of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge spans to really ramp it up a notch in quality, though.

How about you all? What are some of your favorite and least favorite Nebraska tags? What about other states’ tags?