Bonfire of the Vanity Plates

MLSTNS was the first and only vanity plate I ever owned. It was right after college, my first real car and my first car payment. I loved that Chevy Cavalier—my first automatic, only two years old—and clean. The plate was named after Miles Davis’s album Milestones and the magazine by the same name I wanted to publish someday.

It’s a sad, short story—I never graduated from the temporary white paper-plate to full-fledged green and white metal. Within the first month of owning my car, I was hit head-on by a 16-year-old who was playing with her radio, and my car was totaled. I was fine, but my just-graduated ego was a little bruised.

The Department of Motor Vehicles sent me the “Live Free or Die” version of MLSTNS a few weeks later, even after my car was dragged off to the dead-car dump—I was a little insulted. It was like sending a birthday card to someone not knowing they had died. I put the plates in my room for a week, but every time I looked at them I was depressed. I was convinced it was bad karma, so eventually I threw the plates away.

Ever since, I have had a sour attitude about vanity plates.

Still, this obsession with car vanity is a fascinating study. The whole industry began back in the 1980s when they discovered that they ran out of colors for the Ford Taurus and anticipated people might have difficulty finding their car in the parking lot at Shop & Save. Other than that, the primary benefit of having a vanity plate is that when you go check into a hotel, you don’t have to run back out to the car to remind yourself what your license plate is.

There are many categories of vanity plates:

Ego-Boosters. These are the plates that say to the world, “Hey, the person driving this car sure is somethin’!” A friend of mine has such a plate on his little Miata—“MAGARI,” which means, “Bet you wish you had this” in Italian. Or you often see the ones that say, ILVGRLS or 89VETTE.

Business cards. These are the most practical, functional plates—they define the career of the driver or the car…like KDTAXI, or LIMO1, or CPUGUY. My favorite is ISD8YOU.

Names. There’s always ABBY, or SHELLY. But I puzzle over the advantage of these—it may not be so smart to tell a car hijacker what your name is. They could walk right up to your window and say, “Hi Abby! How are you?” and you, unsuspecting, could think you really know them and hand over your keys.

Messages. Some people like to send messages to other drivers, like GDSEND, or URYML8. These are my favorite, because they give you a chuckle as your driving. My boyfriend recently found out that SHUTUP is available—and he is considering it. Although his boss said it might not be wise for the Director of Employee Communications to have that as a vanity plate.

Hobbies. My mother once had RIDEEP as a plate—because she collected frogs. Or there’s LVTRNS or BASSFSH. These aren’t quite so revealing about the driver but still give you some insight into who is driving the car. Just watch out for ILKGNS.

Puzzlers. There are always those that you just can’t figure out. I usually give up on those after looking at the plate for a few minutes, because it’s not worth causing an accident. I chalk most of those up to driver narcissism and wanting no one else in the world to understand their secret code.

So is it worth the $32 that the Registry of Motor Vehicles charges for a reflectorized plate? I suppose. For $62, you can get a moose on it.