• Street-smart with front license plates

    Front license plate in blue with front plate reading Virginia BCD-769.

    • Preview of downloadable U.S. License Plate reference guide, showing license plates from all 50 states including license plate design, security features, and decal design by state

      This is how having front and back license plates makes a difference to public safety, law enforcement apprehension and state revenues

      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).


    Front and back license plates: Texas A&M Transportation Institute findings

    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.

    • License plates on two vehicles clearly visible at dusk due, showing the benefit of reflective license plate sheeting

      Public safety: recognizing vehicles in varied conditions

      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:

      • When parked, two-plate vehicles had a better license plate read rate than one-plate vehicles, 97 percent read rate for two-plate states versus 76 percent in one-plate states. (page 4)
      • When moving, two-plate states (Maryland and Texas) had a read rate of 89%, and for one-plate states (Pennsylvania and Arizona) it was 22% and 58% on roadways connecting Maryland and Pennsylvania. (page 4)
      • U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that the number of plates not read (excluded) on vehicles without two plates was 6% across the northern border and 3.4% across the southern border, noting that the difference between international borders is the presence of dual plate states between the U.S. and Mexico.” (page 4)

      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.

    Law enforcement: two plates fight crime, protect our borders

    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: increased revenue through increased plate readability

    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:

    • Tollway cameras in Pennsylvania (a one-plate state) couldn’t identify 16 percent of vehicles in 2011.
    • The Texas A&M Transportation Institute study estimated that if Colorado—a two-plate state—were to change to a single rear plate, the “E‐470 corridor…  would lose an estimated $23.1 million in toll revenue… annually”.

    Advances in reflective technology even allow motor vehicle agencies to offer personalized plates incorporating graphics promoting attractions and events, adding to potential state revenue.

    What to look for in reflective license plate sheeting:

    • Enhances visibility day or night
    • Superior legibility in license plate number
    • Sharp graphics that can be embossed and roll coated or hot stamped
    • Advanced security features that help law enforcement recognize security marks at a distance

    False assumptions about front plates

    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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    Additional Information

    For more information about license plates at 3M, go to our license plate design references and resources page or download the License Plate Reference Guide (PDF, 3.7 MB).


    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