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Illinois has most vanity plates
Associated Press

Rebecca Davio, who has a vanity license plate, is director of the Vehicle Titles and Registration Division of the Texas Department of Transportation. Texas is last in the nation in the percentage of drivers with personalized, or vanity, license plates.


Associated Press

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Published: 11/12/2007 12:01 AM

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RICHMOND, Va. -- URSOVAIN, Virginia.

You too, New Hampshire, Illinois, Nevada and Montana.

For the first time, a national group has surveyed states to determine which have the highest percentage of personalized, or vanity, license plates. Its finding: Virginia is the vainest of them all.

About one in 10 of the 9.3 million personalized plates nationwide are in Virginia, according to rankings from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. That's 16 percent of the plates in the state.

New Hampshire came in second with nearly 14 percent. Illinois had about 13.4 percent, but it had more total vanity plates than any other state with nearly 1.3 million.

Texas had the fewest, with only about a half-percent of drivers opting to personalize their plates.

"If you've got 9.3 million people across the U.S. sporting vanity plates, you've got a cultural phenomenon," AAMVA spokesman Jason King said.

Kathy Carmichael, a 58-year-old real estate agent from Mechanicsville, has the plate COFENUT. The self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur is down from eight to 10 cups a day to just three. Carmichael said she often gets a thumbs up or a coffee toast from other drivers.

"It's a personality thing," she said. "You get to know something about the person in front of you or who passes you."

Stefan Lonce calls it "minimalist poetry in motion" -- telling a story in eight or fewer characters.

Lonce, author of the upcoming book "LCNS2ROM-License to Roam: Vanity Plates and the Stories they Tell" worked with AAMVA to survey the agencies responsible for licensing vehicles in each state. The New York-based author admits he originally thought it was silly for people to spend extra money to personalize their license plates.

"I think a lot of people have stories to tell and they really want pieces of those stories out there," Lonce said.

Ion Bogdan Vasi, an assistant sociology professor at Columbia University, calls those who personalize their plates "the narcissistic/materialist poets of the iGeneration."

"Most people buy personalized plates simply because they want to tell the world they are special," Vasi said in an e-mail. "They wrote an ode to themselves and they want to share it with everybody on the highway."

Some plates are fairly cryptic, like Brittany Diaz's EN PWANT.

It goes back to when the dancer, 17, of Midlothian, was studying ballet in New York for the summer as a young girl and her French teacher pronounced her favorite style of dance, en pointe, as "pwant."

"Most ballerinas get it, and those who don't dance I figured would be entertained because pwant is just a funny thing to say," she said.

Others are more personal, like those of Ally and Rudy Masry of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. Ally donated her husband a kidney in 2003. Her car has the tag DONOR; his reads DONEE.

Their messages are on specialty plates in which some of the proceeds go to a fund for organ donation and transplant research.

"I frankly thought it was the craziest idea to have personalized plates until this came along," Rudy said.

Initials and names are popular, as are sports teams and quirky takes on professions, such as EYEMAN or 2THDR.

Cherrie Hamilton of Dana Point, Calif., has the license plate BARRYFN to go along with her blog dedicated to Barry Manilow. Dan Faulkner of Dublin, Ohio, has SHIBBYY, his favorite saying from the movie "Dude, Where's my Car?" Then there's Vonn Campbell of Greenville, S.C., whose plate is BYTE1, showing off not only his computer science degree but "my desire to provide a somewhat abrasive message to those individuals who follow too closely."

But why is it that Virginia has so many personalized plates?

There's the low cost -- $10 per year. But it's as cheap in some other states, and Illinois charges $78 per year and has more total personalized tags. Virginia and several other states also allow drivers to plug in endless letter-number combinations online until they find the perfect one, but so do a lot of other states. "It's only $10. You can do it online with little effort. You can get a new one every month if you wanted to," said Benjamin Mace, a Virginia Beach Web designer who started, where people post pictures of their vanity plates or strangers' and visitors can vote on the their favorite.

One thing is for sure, personalized plates are big business. The tags generated more than $9.4 million in Virginia last fiscal year, said Melanie Stokes, a Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman. Most of the money stays within the department.

David Hollis has seen just about every kind of personalized plate as manager of the tag plant at Powhatan Correctional Center, where all of Virginia's license plates are made. Inmates there produce an average of 5,000 personalized plates each week.

One recent day, stacks of plates showcased a taste of Virginia's interests -- DBYA on a "Fight Terrorism" specialty plate, GOTFNS on a Jimmy Buffett-inspired plate, DAWGS2 on an animal plate.

"It's something that they want to tell the world about, that they're personal about," he said while looking out over the shop. "That's why they call it personalized plates."