America Wears Its Heart On Its License Plates

AMERICA, land of the free, is also the land of flirts, boasters, bullies, and would-be comedians. Want proof? Hop in your car and go plate-watching.

Each year, some 10 million Americans pay their state governments up to $100 to stamp personal messages on their license plates. These ``personalized'' or ``vanity'' plates have proved to be cash cows, pouring $31 million a year into state coffers in California alone.

Personalized plates run from belligerent (IMAIM), to flippant (NOTUAGN), to downright pathetic (UNLOVED). Plate enthusiasts claim they've met, among others, an actress with IMAQT, a body builder with HUMONGO, a rancher with N2SHEEP, and an undertaker whose thought-provoking plates read: YURNEXT.

``People sit alone on freeways and expressways, isolated,'' says Daniel Nussbaum, a writer and self-proclaimed ``platehead'' from Los Angeles. ``Personalized plates are a way of breaking up the isolation, asserting identity, and communicating something. I call it `graffiti for the middle class.' ''

A grass-roots language

According to Mr. Nussbaum, plateheads have spawned an entire subculture, replete with its own language: ``PL8SPK.'' His recent book by that name (HarperCollins West, 96pp., $15) consists of famous tales like ``ROMYOH ANNDE JULYET'' and ``OEDIPUS'' told entirely with existing personalized plates. Nussbaum says he has always been fascinated by this grass-roots form of language.

``There's a very particular format with very exact rules. Everyone gets seven spaces, and every plate has to be different. People go through all kinds of contortions to come up with funny plates.''

For instance, Nussbaum says, there are 154 variations on ``excellent'' in California, and, ironically, about as many on ``unique.'' He says he spotted his favorite plate of all fastened to a van carrying a group of sisters clad in habits. It read: NUNSRUS.

``This is the only government program I know of that lets you be creative,'' he says.

According to Jeff Minard, former president of the American License Plate Collectors Association, the practice has spread to all the Canadian provinces, Australia, Austria, and Sweden.

``In 1937, Connecticut decided to offer a reward for good drivers: A driver who went five years with no ticket could choose any four letters for his or her license plate,'' Mr. Minard says. ``By the mid-1950s, you could get anything you wanted in Vermont and New Hampshire for $5. By the 1960s, it moved west.''

Today, Minard estimates that New Hampshire, with about 140,000 vanity plates, is still among the top 15 states, but California is the most represented, at 1.4 million, followed by New York (800,000), Illinois (500,000), Texas (450,000), and Virginia (400,000). Nevada, he says, with 200,000, has the most plates per capita.

All these vanity plates present state officials with an interesting challenge: defining what is appropriate. ``It could be Urdu and something gross, and they have to know about it,'' Minard says.

While there is no official California censor, Evan Nossoff of the California Department of Motor Vehicles says he and his colleagues review each one of the 183,000 annual applications. Often, he says, they consult one of several foreign dictionaries and read entries backwards - as they would appear in rear-view mirrors (YOBTAF). Every year, he says, about 1 percent of the applications are deemed offensive, misleading, or crude.

Free-speech limits

``We have to reject a handful each year,'' Mr. Nossoff says. ``Most of them are variations on things we've rejected before, but there's always somebody who comes up with something new.'' (Besides the predictable off-color entries, a group of white supremicists in Idaho was denied a request for ARYAN.)

``People consistently push the bounds of free speech,'' says Michael Wiener, a state senator and plate enthusiast from Albuquerque, N.M. But ``If someone cares enough to take it to court, they usually win.'' Mr. Wiener cites several cases in which families with the last name HOOKER have been allowed to apply it to their license plates. But most people go for some variation on their initials, Minard says.

How long will this continue?

Nossoff says the market for seven-letter plates is declining. In its place, he says, are special plates issued by nonprofit organizations for fund-raising efforts.

For $20, Golden State motorists can own the new California Arts License Plate. The Yosemite plate is $50. Nosoff adds that New York has fought the slow decline in new applications by offering an eighth digit. ``That opens up a whole new realm of personalized plates,'' he says.

Nussbaum quips that personalized plates are early examples of tomorrow's technology. ``The appearance of language on plates is the first example of the information superhighway,'' he says.

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