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PHIL HARDWICK: License plates — the good, bad and ugly

Delta State license tag

Delta State license tag

License plates, or car tags as they are called in some states, are getting more attention. Some of the attention and related issues are good, some are bad and some are just plain ugly.

First, the good. License plates allow for identification of vehicles. One can only imagine what it would be like if there were no license plates. They are like fingerprints in that they identify a specific vehicle. No two license plates are the same. That is certainly good for law enforcement.

License plates are no longer merely the same old design that stayed around for five years or so. That changed in the early ’70s when many states began to offer personalized licensed plates. This writer lived in another state at the time and for a few dollars more was able to purchase “PDH-1” as a license plate. Nowadays this writer’s family vehicles are personalized with Millsaps College license plates. Indeed, in Mississippi there are now 180 different varieties of license plates available, ranging from 4-H (the Power of Youth) to I Care for Animals to Zeta Phi Beta. Thus, license plates are a way to show identification with and support for many organizations and causes.

Phil Hardwick

Phil Hardwick

The sale of license plates provides revenue to government entities in in that license plate purchase is a method for paying personal property taxes on the vehicle. Because the amount of tax is based on the value of the vehicle it could be argued that these taxes are a more fair tax based on ability to pay.

Now for some of the bad about license plates. Because of so many designs and personalization it has become more difficult for law enforcement and citizens to read license plates. Deciphering some of the license plates has become more burdensome. For example, if there was an Amber Alert for tag number 1234567 and a citizen saw that license plate number and it had an image to its left, i.e. turkey, hummingbird, fish, duck head, and two letters to its right, i.e. WH, WL, WM, WS, WT, it could be very confusing to a citizen who wanted to report the vehicle.

In regard to Mississippi’s current license plates it seems that some beautiful artwork celebrating Mississippi’s musical heritage is so obscure as to be unreadable. For the record, the current Mississippi license plate features “Lucille,” B.B. King’s guitar. That will change after five years of use as required by state law.

County tax collectors in higher property tax counties continuously wrestle with the issue of new residents with out-of-county license plates failing to register their vehicles. Hinds County Tax Collector Eddie Fair addressed the issue in 2013 when he said, “The law states that if you move to Mississippi, you have 30 days to change your tag. However, if you are moving from one county to another, you have until the anniversary year.” In 2012, Hinds County collected $37 million in revenue from tags, but Fair said that number should be higher. “I think it should be somewhere near $41 million or $42 million, so we are losing a lot of money,” he said. And that is not a problem only in Mississippi. For example, Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. has a website http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dta/taxevaders — that encourages citizens to report vehicles that may be evading the County’s Personal Property tax laws.

And now for the ugly, which is the part that is getting more attention. Technology has reached a point where is it possible for cameras and concomitant software to read license plates from distances greater than the human eye can decipher and at high speeds. A few years ago, some cities in Mississippi, and several other states for that matter, installed such cameras at intersections for the purpose of reducing accidents, or so was the stated purpose. It did not take long for critics to point out that increasing revenue to cities and increased accidents was occurring. The National Motorists Association website contains links to five studies that report that red-light cameras increased the number of traffic accidents. In 2009, the Mississippi Legislature passed, and the Governor signed, House Bill 1568, which banned the use of such devices “…TO ENFORCE COMPLIANCE WITH OR TO IMPOSE OR COLLECT ANY FINE, FEE OR PENALTY FOR VIOLATION OF ANY TRAFFIC LAWS, RULES OR REGULATIONS ON ANY PUBLIC STREET, ROAD OR HIGHWAY…”

The use of technology to gather information continues to increase and improve. As mentioned above, it is now possible to take photos of vehicles and their license plates moving past a camera at high speed using Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR’s). License plate recognition is a great tool for law enforcement when used properly and for intended purposes. However, approximately one year ago it was learned that one or more federal agencies were on the verge of creating a national license plate tracking program. That set off a wave of concerns by privacy organizations and others. According to a February 19, 2014 article in the Washington Post, ”Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson … ordered the cancellation of a plan by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to develop a national license-plate tracking system after privacy advocates raised concern about the initiative.” An article on the watchdog.org website dated February 4, 2015 titled, “License plate surveillance may invite political targeting,” reports that privacy advocates have now filed lawsuits. In short, the discussion and concerns about a national database of the comings and goings of license plates and their owners is gaining steam.

And that is just some of the good, bad and ugly of license plates.

» Phil Hardwick is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist and CEO of The Hardwick Company, LLC, which provides strategic planning facilitation and leadership training services. His email is phil@philhardwick. com and he’s on the web at www.philhardwick.com

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