Depending on where you live, you may or may not be required to have a license plate on the front of your vehicle – 31 states do. Having front and rear plates can help keep you safer, significantly increase law enforcement officers’ ability to apprehend criminals and add to your state’s revenue.
In the U.S., the first vehicle license plate laws emerged more than a century ago. In 1901, New York became the first state to require car owners to create “plates” — which may have been made of wood or leather or simply painted on the car — displaying the owner’s initials. Two years later, Massachusetts began issuing numbers to registered owners and by 1910, distributed the first state-issued plates. Since then, a vehicle license plates’ importance has increased well beyond simple owner identification. View the U.S. License Plate Reference Guide (PDF, 3.7 MB).
The Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a higher-education-affiliated transportation research agency in the United States that conducts more than 700 research projects annually, performed literature reviews and field studies in four U.S. states – Pennsylvania and Arizona, one plate states, and Maryland and Texas, two plate states – with a primary goal of understanding the benefits and challenges of having front and back license plates. The resulting paper “Front License Plate Market Research: Comparison of Single Versus Dual License Plates” (PDF, 756 KB), highlights findings on the advantages of front license plate including improved visibility in the daytime due to sun glare and increased revenue for states through more easily identifiable vehicles at tollways¹.
Paramount to avoiding traffic accidents is recognition of oncoming traffic or parked vehicles. In fact, front license plates that use reflective sheeting return light from other vehicles’ headlights, making oncoming vehicles easier to see in the daytime, at night, in tunnels, and in other less than optimal environments. The license plate may be the only reflectivity on the front of a vehicle. Seeing a vehicle more quickly allows drivers to better react in the case of stalled or crashed vehicles as well as changes in the traffic ahead, helping to decrease the chance for an accident.
The Texas A&M Transportation Institute study² (PDF, 756 KB) determined that front plates improve readability rates, and not having a front license plate hampers homeland security efforts. In a summary of the study results, it was noted that:
In addition to the Texas A&M study, a representative of the Ohio Conference of AAA Clubs, while speaking before the Ohio House Transportation Committee in 2015, affirmed AAA’s opposition to removing front license plates, citing their role in identifying vehicles involved in many types of crimes including Amber Alerts, speeding and school zone violations, stolen vehicles, kidnapping, robberies and domestic violence.
Front and back license plates allow law enforcement to see license plates on vehicles in front of them and approaching them. Whether it’s coming or going, head-on or at an angle, the ability to see two license plates on a vehicle creates an additional opportunity for comprehension of the plate number – by a law enforcement officer or through automatic license-plate readers. In fact, in 2016, the National Sheriffs Association (PDF, 31 KB)declared its support for front and rear reflectorized license plates³, saying they “are essential in the quick and accurate identification of motor vehicles even at highway speeds, especially since law enforcement officers often meet stolen vehicles on the highway, as well as (when) overtaking them.”
States that collect tolls can lose out on millions of dollars in lost tolling fees annually due to rear plates sometimes being illegible. Examples include:
Advances in reflective technology even allow motor vehicle agencies to offer personalized plates incorporating graphics promoting attractions and events, adding to potential state revenue.
In the past, rear-plate-only proponents, such as car collectors and owners of high-end vehicles, have argued that their autos will be damaged or altered if required to mount a front plate or that front plates might interfere with autonomous or driver-assisted features. In fact, many after-market, no-drill front-plate brackets are readily available online and at retailers. Neither has credible evidence been offered that proves front plates affect vehicle sensors.
Given the safety and law-enforcement advantages of front license plates, many are calling for them to be required in every state. It’s a change that might put us all on the right road ahead.
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¹,² Texas A&M Transportation Institute, “Front License Plate Market Research: Comparison of Single Versus Dual License Plates”, (page 4)
³ National Sheriffs Association, National Sheriffs’ Association Supports front and Rear Reflectorized License Plates