Vanity Plates: Less than Zero

What is it about the process of selling and administering vanity plates that makes states act so crazily?

Case in point is my vanity plate, which reads "N1303K."  I am proud of the extremely obscure fact about me that it reveals; N1303K is the designation for the sixth most common mutation that causes the disease cystic fibrosis (CF).  That puts me in rarified company among the 10 million Americans who are CF carriers.  And I am a militant heterozygote because, thanks in part to the N1303K mutation I bequeathed her, my daughter (unlike me) has cystic fibrosis and must deal with its challenges and responsibilities every day.

When I first applied for a license plate reading N1303K more than a decade ago, the desk clerk at the New Hampshire Department of Motor Vehicles actually started to cry when I explained how my request was not an expression of vanity but rather of a yearning to overcome a disease.  My car wore N1303K proudly for a year or two, when fate took me out of New Hampshire and into Vermont.

The license plate authorities in the Green Mountain State rejected my application for N1303K.  It turns out that Vermont has a rule banning (among other things) vanity plates that include more than one letter in combination with numbers.  Vermont also has a provision in its Administrative Procedures Act that requires agencies to change their rules, or say why they won't, upon request.  So, in response to my request, they said vanity plates with more than one letter in combination with numbers would remain verboten lest there be "confusion" with "plates of the regular issue."

In the spirit of the 17th Century English poet George Herbert, who first observed that "living well is the best revenge," rather than persist in my struggle with the motor vehicle authorities in Vermont eventually I had the good fortune of being able to move back to New Hampshire.  In due course, I showed up at the DMV in Concord with my still-shiny N1303K license plates in my hand.

This time, the clerk didn't cry.  Rather, she drily confirmed that, yes, I could have my requested vanity plate but, no, I would not be able to use my old ones.  Why?

Oh, nothing.  Literally.

The DMV clerk explained that when I originally registered N1303K as my license plate, the circular figure in the middle had been duly and correctly recorded as the numeral "zero."  Now, zeroes are no longer allowed in New Hampshire license plates -- only, if you like circular characters, the letter "O."  So, no I could not have "N1303K but, yes, I could have N13O3K with the letter O in the middle of it.  She even checked with her boss before sending me on my way, having charged me an extra eight bucks (to print new plates) for which I patiently waited an additional four weeks to receive in the mail.

Here's the thing, though.  My old N1303K plates and my new N1303K plates look exactly the same.

What, if any, lesson is there in all of this?  I think it suggests states should get out of the vanity plate business.  It's simply too fraught for states to administer, given the intersection of personal expression and the law-and-order imperatives that drive the need for license plates in the first place.  Vanity plates have kept their share of First Amendment Lawyers in business, my favorite case being the license plate ILVTOFU as proposed, unsuccessfully, by fans of bean curd in several states.

To preserve the revenue stream, New Hampshire and Vermont should do what Montana does and allow organizations to create (and have the motor vehicle authorities sell) a plethora of distinctive license plate designs that people can use to express their tribal inclinations.  My favorite Montana license plates are the ones commemorating my grandmother's home town of Butte -- it depicts that great city's noble mining past as "the richest hill on earth" -- or the one from a conservation group that bears the motto "No Child Left Indoors."

Meanwhile, if you see a with the N1303K license plate around town, give a wave -- and know that the letter in the middle will always be a zero to me, no matter what anyone says.

And, oh by the way (or should I say zero by the way?), if you happened to make a donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in honor of us militant heterozygotes carrying the N1303K mutation, well that would be a g00d thing t00.