A Quirky Look At Personalised Number Plates

At any given time, there are more than 11 million vehicles registered in Pennsylvania, a number that includes cars, truck and motorcycles. All of them bear registered personalised number plate, plates that since 2003 were pressed in Fayette County, in a crucible of sweat, heat and pressure.

As an aside, the state Department of Corrections has produced personalised number plate for almost as long as we have been driving. Production was merely transferred to SCI-Fayette in 2003 from Western State Penitentiary.

Each year the Fayette factory stamps out more than 1.3 million personalised number plate, which it sells to PennDOT for $1.80 each.

The inmates working each of the four main presses — which emboss a plate’s letters and numbers — will repeat the process 3,000 times per day.

Personalised number plate are such an integral part of Pennsylvania that a tour of the shop reveals interesting insights into the fabric of the society that created it.

Want to know about the economy? Look at production numbers.

Following the start of the recession in December 2008, new car sales took a huge hit as consumers pulled back from large purchases amid economic uncertainty.

Orders at the shop — placed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation on a quarterly basis — plummeted accordingly from more than 2 million annually to around 1.3 million. They have since started to tick back upwards to 1.5 million per year.

Perhaps just as curious are the contents of a large wooden crate kept in one corner of the football-field sized shop.

Inside are thousands of plates, bundled in batches of 100. Each batch bears the familiar blue and yellow stripes, but it is there that similarities end.

The stacks represent a class of personalised number plate that is among the most quirky in the nation — Pennsylvania nonprofit organizational personalised number plate.

They account for only about 1 percent of the total plates on the road, but come in more than 280 varieties — making Pennsylvania number three in the nation for largest variety of personalised number plate.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it appears tiny Maryland is the king of that mountain, with more than 800 different plates available. New Jersey is number two, with slightly more than 300.

“We have people who come here year in and year out for decades, wanted to give them something so they could show their love of the area,” he said.

California, by contrast only boasts 100. Of course, only in California would a personalised number plate program also be the subject of a constitutional debate — in 2004 the state was sued over claims the specialty personalised number plate program violated the First Amendment.

In Pennsylvania the program is dominated by colleges, universities and volunteer fire companies. But it runs a gamut from Penn State Alumni (by far the most popular) to the Potter County Visitors Bureau, (which has the distinct pleasure of being the only county with its own personalised number plate).

The nonprofit’s executive director, David Brooks, is proud of his organization’s plate, which have sold roughly 330 units since it was created. PennDOT, he said, was skeptical at first and Brooks freely admits it was “one of the quirkier things we try to do.”

Originally the group wanted to have its slogan, “God’s Country,” featured on the plate, but PennDOT nixed the idea. According to the rules (yes, there are rules) the plates can only bear the organization’s logo and name — no slogans.

Still, Brooks is happy with his plate — he has No. 4. The first plate in the Potter County series belongs to a man in Dover.