Confusing New License Plate Numbering Scheme for Washington State

By Kevin Miller

10.15.2009

Washington State License Plate Seven CharactersThe Washington State Department of Licensing announced last week that they are implementing a change in the license plate numbering configuration for passenger vehicles that uses seven characters, as all possible configurations consisting of six characters have been exhausted. The current numbering scheme consisting of three numbers followed by three letters (like 123-ABC) was implemented in the late 1980s, after the original scheme with the letters first (ABC-123) exhausted all of its possible configurations. With the current numbering protocol already issuing plates whose letter combination begins with Z, the state was forced to come up with a new format for license plate numbering.

The new numbering scheme consists of seven characters, with a number, then a letter, then two numbers, then three letters (think 1A23BCD, or 7F36XWJ). The overall appearance of the passenger vehicle plates will not change. They will still feature the standard mountain background currently in use. Most states in the west have only six characters on their license plates, though California uses seven-character plates, with a number, then three letters, followed by three numbers (like 1ABC234).

Whenever government organizations make a change like this, people will complain about the new configuration. In this case, some of the detractors’ arguments make sense. They argue that the new character configuration is just a jumble of numbers and letters, which will be difficult to remember. Pundits worry that it will be more difficult for witnesses to recall license plate numbers if a crime has been committed.

“The decision to use a seven-character plate number wasn’t made in haste,” DOL Director Liz Luce said. “ We began studying our options years ago and carefully considered our requirements, the needs of law enforcement, and configurations that have been successful in other states.”

DOL chose a seven-character configuration similar to one used in California because it provides a very large number of possible combinations and doesn’t conflict with any plates already issued. After subtracting combinations DOL does not plan to issue, this configuration offers more than 350,000,000 possible plate numbers.

Washington’s Department of Licensing came under fire in recent years after making a mandatory requirement that license plates must be replaced every seven years, citing concerns about the durability of the reflective appearance of the state’s license plates. That privilege costs $27.75, with an additional $20 surcharge if you want your new license plates to have the same number as your existing plates.

Whether or not you like the new numbering scheme (or even care about it), local vehicle licensing offices around the state will begin issuing the new seven-character plates after exhausting their stock of the current six-character plates. This means the new plates will be available at different times in different locations around the state. Keep your eyes peeled for the new plates.  I defy you to recall its number after a quick glance.

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Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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13 Comments

  1. I don’t understand the point of this post. Obviously, Washington state needed more letter-number combinations and, since America is apparently obliged, followed the California pattern. Although I do wish the Golden State would fall into the ocean, it is clear that its 7-character license plate pattern isn’t one of its many, many problems. They’ll be fine.

  2. How many states now require seven alpha-numeric symbols, I am wondering?

  3. I agree with James2: is something as minor as an extra digit in a license plate number so disruptive that it becomes a calamity for people? It’s just one more digit. Yet another sign that we are turning into a third world country, added to all of the others!

  4. I’m with James2, just what did you expect them to do that was different from what they did?

  5. Arizona went to 7 alpha-numerics a couple years ago. (I guess we are no longer part of the West?) The big complaint here is that at the same time they switched to a flat rather than stamped plate to save money.

    The flat plates look cheap compared to the old stamped ones. However when you sell/trade your viehicle you are now allowed to keep your old plate (no front plate in AZ) and transfer it to your new car.

  6. Mark in AZ:

    It’s interesting you say that about taking your plate with you.

    I’ve lived in states where they did it opposite ways per state – plate stays with the car when you sell a car, and plate stays with the person when you sell a car.

    My preference is to live in a state where the plate stays with a car for it’s whole life. But, I know some people like the system where the plate stays with the person.

    I still see a car I sold 15 years ago go by sometimes in traffic where I live. It easy to recognize because it still has the same plate on it that was on it when I sold it to the guy (which might have been three owners ago).

  7. I believe that the author’s point was not an issue with the 7-digit plates, but the somewhat patternless arrangement of the numbers and letters.

    My state, PA, has been using 7-digit plates for years. Ours are ABC-1234. It’s a lot easier to memorize the plate number of the car that just hit your parked car and drove off if that’s their number vs. 1A23BCD. Does WA really need 350 million plate combinations at this point?

  8. Here in Colorado, the numbering switched from 7-digits (ABC1234) back to 6-digits (123-ABC) in 2000 because 1) the state somehow ran out of combinations in less than 10 years, and 2) because the state patrol said the 7-digit configuration was too tough to decipher from any distance (even though other states don’t seem to have that problem). Now the word is they are running out of combinations again, probably because there is absolutely no purge of license plates here at all. Most of the time when cars are sold the plates end up in the trash, with the number combination never to be used again.

    Also we have over 80 different kinds of specialty plates for every special interest group you could think of (bicyclists, animal lovers, colleges, etc).

  9. The ideal would be a single rear plate and the plate stays with the cars.

    Even more ideal would be a four or five digit plate but I guess that can’t happen unless you’re in Rhode Island.

    The best plates are solid color with raised solid color numbers with high contrast between the colors.

    Well, guess that’s enough time spent on the small stuff.

  10. Painetcarl,

    It was a lot less hassle when the plate stayed with the car. Most people are convinced that the new law was merely a sop to the rather powerful auto-dealers here.

    Technically you are supposed to remove the plate when you sell your car and the new owner is suposed to buy a 3-day temporary plate to drive it home. In practice, if you don’t want to keep the plate you just let the other guy drive home on the old plate and have him turn it in for you when he goes to the MVD to register it.

  11. I think the plate stays with car in all the EU countries. Maybe the other ones too.

  12. ^^ I don’t think EU plates have the same type of reflectivity as Washington plates. The difference though is that there is almost always a high contrast between the text/numbers and the background on European plates, which makes up for the lower reflectivity. Their plates are also longer with the letters and numbers spaced out a bit more. It’s a different story here in WA, we’ve got Mt. Rainier on ours…

  13. unless they were thinking of including cyrillic or greek characters, it’s not like they had a choice. at some point, you just run out of unique numbers

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