SOS: Hear a cop's pleas about license plates and driver's licenses
A woman and her child were leaving a grocery store about a month ago when they notice some guy taking their picture. The child actually noticed it first. Is this illegal? No, because they are in a public place.
Is it creepy? You bet. Especially since the creepy cameraman, upon realizing he had been discovered, backed out of the store’s parking lot so no one could read his license plate.
Not to worry, the cops have identified the suspicious shutterbug, spoken to him and will continue to watch for him. However this case underscores a problem in the State of Michigan between the police and the Michigan Secretary of State (SOS). As the late Strother Martin put it in the classic 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, “what we got here is failure to communicate.” (See the YouTube clip here)
Michigan is among 19 states that do not require a front license plate. It may be a cost-saving measure for the SOS, but at what price to victims, potential victims, witnesses and those whose duty it is to protect the public?
Speaking of plates, just how many different styles of license plates are there in the State of Michigan? Some of those plates are really sharp and artistic. Some of them honor veterans. Some support charities. Some show support of colleges, groups and fraternities. Some celebrate events and some vanity plates are extremely clever. However some license plates have been around too long.
My son’s vehicle still sports a 1996 issued 100th Anniversary of the Automobile plate. It, like the early “Great Lakes Splendor” license plates, have fallen victim to Great Lakes State road salt and look like they have been Great Lakes sand blasted. At night, these plates, which are up to 16 years old, are so oxidized they are barely readable.
Did you know that if your plate is unreadable due to oxidation, dirt, grime, snow, or license plate frame, you are in violation of the law? This would be termed an “obscured plate” violation. If your plate is old, oxidized and unreadable, take it to the SOS office and get it replaced.
Have you tried to read a license plate by following a vehicle, like the police have to in order to radio in their traffic stop? Is it my old eyes or are license plates hard to read? In order to read the now seven-digit plates, you have to be locked on the other vehicle’s bumper.
It also used to be when plates were made “fresh” every couple of years — and arguably when there were fewer cars on the road — they were easier to remember. The reason for this was that there was a system.
Passenger car plates had three alphabet letters then three numbers or vice versa. Commercial plates had two letters then four numbers or vice versa.
When plates were so configured, I knew one undercover officer named “Slider” who could memorize three license plates in a driveway — go in and do his dope deal remembering all the names and faces in the group — and 30 minutes later write down the plate numbers. Slider was phenomenal for a number of reasons, but I doubt even he could remember three license plates with so many combinations of numbers and letters currently assigned to Michigan license plates.
SOS also used to avoid using certain letters because they looked so much like numerals.
The letter “B” was not used because it looked like the number 8. The letter “Q” was not used because it looked like a 0 (zero) which of course also looks a lot like the letter “O.” All of these are currently used. I am positive that “B” and “Q” are used. The letter “O” I can not say for sure, because I saw a plate with what I thought in the sequence of numbers and letters had to be a letter instead of a number -- but who knows with all the different alpha-numeral configurations SOS currently stamps on plates.
Take a look at the letters M, N, W and sometimes H. Those letters are easily confused on license plates — especially when they are crammed onto a seven-digit license plate.
Take your driver’s license out for a moment — I’ll wait. If you happen to be wearing “readers” as many of us aging “baby boomers” are, take them off and try to read your license. It is not easy unless your arms are long enough and you squint just right. Furthermore you know what your license should read.
Now picture trying to read that license at night, with strobe lights flashing and a blinding spotlight behind you and your life perhaps depends on it. Furthermore, the very latest licenses have a plastic coating with an embossed state seal that catches the light of the spotlight or flashlight just right and makes it almost impossible to read outside the police car.
One veteran officer — "The Engineer — complained to me, “Just because they (SOS) can print in #6 font on a license does not make it a good idea.” Those licenses are hard to read in lowlight or spotlight conditions.
“The Engineer” offered a great idea. Why not — since it is a “privilege” and not a “right” to drive in the State of Michigan — require people renewing their plates each year to provide a telephone number where the police or SOS could reach the registered owner.
Those phone numbers could be used at accident or abandoned car scenes. They could assist in calling the registered owner to see who should have their vehicle. It would make it easier to call parents when teen drivers are involved. That is a great idea since there really is no free and comprehensive phone directory anymore.
A pair of state trooper friends suggested the SOS collect the vehicle color and all the insurance data and print that information on a vehicle’s registration. The SOS is clearly getting data from insurance companies — why not print the insurance company, policy number and expiration on the registration? In that way motorists would only have to carry their registration and driver’s license while motoring on Great Lakes State roads.
I am not necessarily blaming Secretary of State Ruth Johnson for the problems with plates and driver’s license. Those issues were initiated before her term. I am however urging the SOS to consult “street cops” before starting programs, because some of the SOS revenue-generating initiatives also adversely impact public safety.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.
Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for AnnArbor.com.