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Posted on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

SOS: Hear a cop's pleas about license plates and driver's licenses

By Rich Kinsey

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?


Here are just three of the many varieties of license plates offered in Michigan.

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



Thu, Dec 13, 2012 : 11:58 p.m.

You begin with an example of harassment of a citizen whom has broken no laws. You give the impression that cops these days are half blind, have terrible memory retention, and are color-blind. You suggest that requiring a second plate on vehicles is the solution? You mention plates that are rusty/dirty and in the same thought afirm that this is illegal. What does that have to do with front plates? If anything this points to a lack of enforcement. As a truck driver with 13 years of experience on our roads I can tell you that the number one problem on our roads is a complete lack of enforcement of traffic law. Not the lack of front plates.


Sat, Jun 23, 2012 : 3:55 p.m.

I am not in law enforcement or with the Government, and therefore not in need of readily being able to identify and track vehicles. However, I greatly miss vehicle license plates that were easily identifiable by their respective States from quite a distance. Michigan's black, blue, and Bi-centennial plates were easy to identify coast-to-coast.... Increasingly, license plates are a reflective white background, with darker-colored letters. Unless one is close enough to read the State name (assuming it isn't hidden in the license plate frame), or has a recognizable School team ensigna or the like, all bets are off for easy identification.... Front plates seem to make sense to have. But again it doesn't directly affect me....


Fri, Jun 22, 2012 : 6:10 p.m.

Hold on, Rich: Google "transponder (aircraft)" for the answer to your complaint. The transponder system for identifying aircraft was developed during WWII by the American & British military - that technology is at least 67 years old. That means there's no obstacle to installing transponders in automobiles, and they can be made to respond to any law enforcement signal to ensure accurate identification -(regardless of where, when or at what speed) . This - is why airplanes don't have or need license plates. :-) Today, information systems are very advanced, enabling - for example - a LEO to be notified if a given drivers' licensee is also licensed to carry a concealed pistol. Once such ID numbers are automatically sent to any police terminal, the complete & detailed identification information is right there for the LEO to read on a screen. So we can eliminate license plates all together if every car has a transponder.

Renee VanEpps

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 11:43 p.m.

Totally agree with you Rich. And we should also add to the complaint list that hot files on wanted persons really should hit on soundex for first names. It's ridiculous when you run William Joe Blow through LEIN and get NO RECORD or NIL LEIN because the warrant is entered using the spelling of Willam without the "i". I can not believe how unsafe this state's system is. In California, it would give you the 10 most likely responses using Soundex. It should be a federal law. (And I'm not one for creating stupid laws all the time but they're gambling with your lives out there..)


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 11:03 p.m.

Has Mr. Officer reported his son to any of his still working colleagues. I doubt it. But woe be he who doesn't replace their own. This smells of better than you just as his claim that LEO's are professional drivers.

Ann English

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 10:25 p.m.

In the video link, Strother Martin looks and sounds very different than he does as he plays George Barkley in the Gilligan Island episode titled Take a Dare. I agree that 8 looks a lot like a B. A looks a lot like a 4. I used to regularly see a car parked with 8BY W44. Three letters and three numbers like other plates, but it was easy to remember for it looked similar enough to BABY WAA. It took no imagination to conclude one plate reflected another driver's military experience because it began with SGT. Only a personalized plate like that one would have a period after a letter, indicating an abbreviation. Rich, you probably remember Patrick Daniel, who was stopped in Utah because he did not have a front license plate, which all Utans do. The Utah police had no idea at first that Daniel, a.k.a. Steve Britton, had two bodies in his vehicle. But he was from Ann Arbor, and drove out to Utah shortly after the Winter Olympics ended in Salt Lake City.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 9:46 p.m.

Personally, I don't care for front license plates, because they inevitably wind up bent, weatherbeaten, and generally make a car look bad. This isn't helped by the fact that most front license plate mounts look like they were the last thing the designers thought of before the car went to production, and therefore look even worse. However, the #1 reason not to like front plates is that they make a nice flat target for the police to bounce a laser beam off of, to see how fast you're going. Ann Arborites should be opposed to them for the above reason, plus the fact that a front license plate will increase the aerodynamic drag of most compact eco-cars, especially the Prius.

Zach Jerger

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 9 p.m.

How about we get some license plates that aren't boring looking, I would kill to have a Red Wings sponsored license plate, or at the very least go back to the old blue style, those were unique and you could always tell that "they are from Michigan" when you're in a different state.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 9:49 p.m.

The Red Wings aren't public domain, so the state would have to pay Mike Ilitch royalties for every plate issued. Not much profit left after that. The reason the white-on-blue plates are no longer available is because the white background makes the plate more light-reflective and easier to read. I personally don't miss the old ones, which I thought were among the most boring plates I've ever seen.

Zach Jerger

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 9:03 p.m.

Not to mention it would lead to more money being raised by the state.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 8:49 p.m.

I wonder if it would be more cost-effective to have QR codes on license tabs, driver's licenses, registration, POI, etc. and to issue the police smartphones and tablets that could read them. An officer could scan the codes and have all the pertinent info logged in about 3 seconds, plus a central computer could relay any outstanding tickets, warrants etc. back that much quicker.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 7:44 p.m.

You want to solve the whole "License, registration, proof of insurance? STOP REQUIRING IT. The sticker (Or your computer) will prove whether or not the car is registered. The proof of insurance card does nothing to help. Make a law requiring insurance, fine. But why should I have to prove it for every traffic stop when I'm not going to use it?

Renee VanEpps

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 11:45 p.m.

Police don't write the laws, they enforce them.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 6:44 p.m.

Also, can I get a print copy of this article so that when older people start crying about the younger generation I can use this to show why our economy is so poor and Republicans should not be allowed near education?


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 6:43 p.m.

I also think it's crazy that license plates don't dispense free candy. I mean, what if a situation arose where there were kids being hurt, and they didn't even get any candy. Some people have old candy that's been oxidized and it's really a privilege to drive, so free candy should come out of license plates.

Kevin McNulty

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 6:38 p.m.

I agree. The multi mix of numbers and letters makes is so much harder to look at a plate and memorize it. I note that I my bicycle rides when I practice reading plates in case I ever get run off the road. And back in the day I had the same question as your Engineer. Why not put a phone number on registration records? Gets up dated every year. It would have been very beneficial both ways back then when we were less tow happy than our neighbors and tried to reach a driver before towing a car. Would make it easier to contact an owner of a car broken into found in a parking lot which happens too often.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 5:13 p.m.

My beef with the law stating that you need to carry proof of insurance with you or in your vehicle. In this computer age they can look this up in 20 seconds.

Macabre Sunset

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 4:23 p.m.

The state has proposed a solution: they will now erect an eight-foot fence around any car with unreadable license plates.

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 5:05 p.m.

well done


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 3:23 p.m.

With Rick's registration changes in effect you could never paint your car, you couldn't switch insurance companies for a better deal, and of course you would have to own a phone to own a car. As for trouble reading under stressful low light conditions, and the impossibility of remembering alpha-numeric sequences that once would have come easy to you, well, welcome to late middle age. In fact, I was going to drop by to tell you this, but I couldn't find my keys. These new keys get lost two or three times a week. They need to do something about that.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 3:16 p.m.

Why does the song "Call Me Maybe" come to mind? Here's my number, call me, maybe? If the cop can't read the plate then maybe he should let you know? Otherwise, leave my number alone. Maybe?

John Hritz

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 2:43 p.m.

I agree we should have front plates. Although not the primary thrust of the article, candid photography of people, in public, even kids, even if the kids aren't yours, is legal and is occasionally unusual, but not in and of itself CREEPY. The behavior of this photographer sounds suspicious in this case, but general concerns about being photographed and videotaped are misplaced. CCTV cameras and time-lapse still cameras are common-place all over the country as part of building and perimeter security by government and private business. I suspect that the grocery store's parking lot cameras (plus good policing) contributed to finding the guy without the plate number.

Mr Peter

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 1:53 p.m.

I'm delighted to see this column subject posted. I have long been irritated by the many unreadable license plates on the road in Michigan, especially the old Mackinac Bridge and antique car plates. I tried complaining about them to the local SOS office and was referred to my legislator. I was directed to my state senator and the response--both to my original plea to retire these plates--and to a repeat complaint two years later was that discontinuing these plates required introduction of bills in the legislature and that basically they had too many other more important issues to address. I was also told it would be a hardship on the driver if they were told they "must" buy a new vanity replacement plate! I was told it was the responsibility of the driver to replace these plates and that it is, indeed, illegal to drive with unreadable plates. The entire onus was put on the police to ticket such drivers to get these plates off the road.

Dog Guy

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 1:45 p.m.

Americans can now buy home-designed U.S. postage stamps and even M&M's candies. To sweeten the proposed large raise in registration fees, Michigan could allow home-designed plates. I would like plates the same color as my vehicle and featuring a picture of our family. I'll leave room at the bottom for 1" high alphanumeric identification.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 1:13 p.m.

I agree with everything you said in this article except "Why not -- since it is a "privilege" and not a "right" to drive in the State of Michigan" It is a right to drive a motor vehicle. Not a privilege.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 4:34 p.m.

That Australian blog is interesting, but there's a fatal flaw in the argument, and that is "traveling" and "driving" are not the same thing. The inalienable right to "travel" upon roadways does not convey an automatic and equal right to operate a motor vehicle to do so. There are plenty of ways to "travel" that don't involve the operation of a motor vehicle, therefore, the requirement of a license to operate a motor vehicle upon a public roadway in no way restricts a person's right to "travel." No court case quoted in the article equated "traveling" with "driving," and I don't believe there are any.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 1:02 p.m.

I moved from a dual plate state to this single plate state and don't much care which Michigan adopts, though I have experienced instances when it would have been easier to identify a car had it had front plates. I DO however rebel at the idea of crouching in the SOS parking lot, trying to pry my license plate off in order to demonstrate its physical condition ... annually.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 8:32 p.m.

Does somebody require that? For Pete's sake, I've been in the SOS office once in the last 15 years, and I've got two cars. Why is everybody complaining about standing in line there? Why are you going so often? (I'm honestly asking ... you have boats and trailers or what? I thought you could do all that stuff online!)


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 12:38 p.m.

I don't see the problem with having "insurance and registration", why would these two need to be combined? There is truly no need for that, they're two separate entities and as stated above not everyones policy/registration dates coincide. Your insurance give the expiration date of your policy, ask them to add car colors if necessary. A contact number with the SOS is a good idea, I don't understand why they don't have a phone number on file. Some of this is just silly requests to me where others make sense. The new licenses are very convoluted and I could see the potential glare effect. However, I believe part of this change was to help deter counterfitting, I know the old licenses of the 80's and 90's were pretty easy to fudge and that was always in issue. And although I understand the crime identification issue I've never been a fan of sual plates both visually and financially. Michigan does have A LOT of different plate styles and I'm far from a fan of the plain blue and white now 7 spaced plates. The rusted out plates are far too abundant as well. However, maybe people should have to bring their plate in when coming in for renewal. If the state sees its unreadable they can issue a new one because I've yet to hear of/see anyone get stopped for these plates and I see plenty of them on the road.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 1:02 p.m.

I drive a lot of gravel roads and have been stopped for an unreadable plate.Covered with dust. And a lot of us renew our plates by mail or at the kiosk.

A A Resident

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 12:10 p.m.

Bcar, don't you think front plates are needed to apprehend all those people who flee the scene of a crime driving backwards?


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 8:29 p.m.

I think Doc missed AA's sarcasm. It happened *once* that we know of (in the article's opening anecdote), and wasn't even technically a crime, and they found the guy anyway. So apparently that means we should spend millions on new plates. Oh, think of the children!


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 1:22 p.m.

@AA_R, LOL! good one!


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 12:30 p.m.

Although I can understand the "fleeing" factor I don't want the extra charge or hardware for front plates either. If someone wants to commit a crime and extra license plate won't stop them.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 12:26 p.m.

AA, how often does this occur? Enough to warrant paying more for plates? Hardly.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 11:55 a.m.

WOW...cop has a hard time reading a license plate, but it's perfectly ok for them to have a gun, that needs to be aimed... EYE TEST ANYONE??? Oh wait, "expert" police shooters get hits ~18% of the time in real shootings, thats good enough... :O I don't want front plates and hope we never adopt them. But I also have a nice sports car hiding in the garage and don't want to ugly up the front of it ;-P


Fri, Jun 22, 2012 : 9:30 p.m.

Just ("Wow"), please google police pistol qualification courses. You'll find the results very informative and learn that, within limits, eye tests are not even part of target recognition and engagement. It's how quickly you recognize friend or foe and how quickly you can place shots in vital areas, not how well you did at the optometrist's office. I can't read *most* license plates under normal conditions, but I can easily pass the pistol qualification course for any police department and the U.S. Marshal Service as well. That includes hitting a 2-inch X-ring (aka, "bullseye") at 20 feet with 50% of my shots - semi-auto pistol, rapid fire. I don't know where you get the idea that 18% hits is the average for "expert" police, it's more like 96+% in a 6" area to qualify for "Expert." If you really want to promote a viewpoint or opinion, first be sure it's supported by facts, documentation, authoritative sources. :-)


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 9:41 p.m.

Way to use failed logic and a bad argument to not make a point, because reading a license plate on a car that speeds past is completely different than aiming a pistol at close range.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 3:53 p.m.

...great analogy. I can totally see how the Contrast of a plate (because of the nearly infinite amount of color/vanity/scenery/layout variances) being difficult to see in sunny/dark/raining/distance/etc conditions has everything to do with how well an officer shoots. Especially, as you've brought up, in an extremely high stress fire-fight/shooting scenario.

A A Resident

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 11:29 a.m.

Maybe people should be required to wear front and rear plates. That would make things easier for law enforcement too. There's a lot of wasted space on a car. How about the license number in 15" high vinyl stick-on letters, on four sides and the roof? (can't read current plates from aircraft)

Craig Lounsbury

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 11:03 a.m.

"why not print the insurance company, policy number and expiration on the registration." Great idea. Then if I change insurance companies I can go to the SOS and stand in line for 45 minutes to record the change. And since my registration comes due in Jan while my insurance comes due in May I might go again to update my registration. And the cash strapped State can charge me $15-$25 to make the change. Or I can take my chances and the cops can write me a ticket for $125 for not having my current insurance match my registration indicated insurance. No thanks, lets just carry 2 separate pieces of paper in the glove box.


Sat, Jun 23, 2012 : 5:44 a.m.

@Chris, check out their website. You can do a lot of things online with SoS these days, including a lot of renewal stuff.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 3:13 p.m.

If you live near Belleville, the only place in the area that has automated machines to automatically get you in and out of an SOS in under 5. We renew there every year and wow what a coo to just get the job done quickly and efficiently. Wish there were more machines like that. Good article though.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 2:13 p.m.

Or you could just go onto their web site and make the change. Oh, wait, this is Michigan where the SOS likes to see you in person for reasons that defy comprehension.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 10:57 a.m.

Can we talk about personalized plates and bumper stickers too? I've found most people that have them are really in love with themselves.

Ed Kimball

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 3:39 p.m.

Why do you think they call them "vanity" plates?


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 12:40 p.m.

I'd think personalized plates are probably helpful in this day and age. Though some get pretty tricky many are easy to read and have a more "direct" format than others.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 10:51 a.m.

Not just Michigan, but most states have gone to offering multiple styles of plates, supporting various causes. The idea that a police officer could identify "New York" plates at a glance has been lost. The next step, however, will be to some sort of RFID -- a "chip" that will allow an officer to "scan" the plate from the cruiser do simply download pertinent info -- including the phone number that Mr. Kinsey wants. He's right that the new Michigan D/L format is awful. Why the state would make the document so much harder to read is a complete mystery.

Peter Hochgraf

Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 7:20 p.m.

In the UK they've developed special readers that are mounted in some (probably most) Road Policing cars and along the road side. These cameras can snap a picture of a plate and run it thru their system. While here in the states cops aren't allowed to perform 'routine traffic checks' on anyone they like (although admittedly they could probably just follow a car around until it does something illegal) Said system could be implicated into the US on a manual system, where they cop has to press a button to have the system look up a plate. Of course that would mean having to get new plates & eliminating most of the different fancy designs we have. The ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Reader) system basically takes a picture of a Number Plate, runs it thru a number of databases including: Insurance, Licensing, Criminal, Tax, & MOT, as well as the ability to add in custom ones (like cars stolen last night). The system then runs every car that does past a camera and then alerts the W/PC what the offence it.


Thu, Jun 21, 2012 : 10:36 a.m.

I could not agree more......very well done, Rich....