Arizona’s cactus-emblazoned plate has been voted the favorite license plate in America, with nearly a third of the 1,000 respondents in a new survey ranking it as the best state standard-issue design in the country.
Coming in second place was California’s classic white plate with the red script font reading “California.” Alabama’s picturesque lake scene-emblazoned plate came in third, according to the survey.
Nearly a third of survey respondents picked their favorite plate because it represents their home state, but half of the respondents chose plates with excellent color schemes. Other reasons: The imagery captures the state’s spirit, the plate features a great slogan and it’s bold and strong.
What’s the key to a winning plate design?
States with well-liked designs tend to stick with a good thing, such as:
- Arkansas, with its barely-there white diamond (representing its diamond mines) and the motto “The Natural State.”
- A corner-to-corner rainbow has graced license plates in Hawaii since 1991.
- Alaska’s blue-on-gold “Last Frontier” plates. (The state’s 1921 plates may be the country’s most highly valued collector plates, fetching some $20,000).
- Utah has two standard plates: one depicts an iconic giant red-rock arch, but its other features a skier and a much-beloved motto dating to the mid-’80s, “Greatest Snow on Earth.”
- Delaware’s plate reminds folks it’s the first state with a bold blue-and-gold design.
- Nevada’s plate features multicolored abstract mountains and the phrase “Home Means Nevada.”
A brief history of license plates in the U.S.
States began to issue license plates 110 years ago. Owners were initially assigned numbers and told to make their own, often fashioned from leather and metal.
Drivers do care what these ubiquitous, mobile billboards look like. This is most evident when things go wrong, as in 2003, when Kentucky released a license plate featuring a rising sun with a giant smiley face and the motto, “Kentucky: It’s that friendly.”
Residents promptly took pens and duct tape to their bumpers, defacing the sun with mustaches and frowns. The state spent $3.5 million for new plates, money it said it would recover 50 cents at a time from license renewal stickers.
More than a license plate
License plates’ crucial role, of course, is for identification. However, when more people started driving to more places, the plate’s design took on the part it has continued to serve to this day: to entice travelers to visit the state.
Of course, if you don’t like your state’s standard-issue license plate and, like 95% of the population, are not about to pay extra for a specialty version, you can always cover up the art as long as you don’t obscure the numbers or tags. The U.S. Supreme Court has already given the OK.
In 1977, the nation’s high court heard a case involving a New Hampshire couple fined for masking New Hampshire’s logo, “Live Free or Die,” on their plates. Jehovah’s Witnesses, the couple said it conflicted with their moral, religious and political beliefs. In a 6-3 ruling, the court ruled in favor of the couple on First Amendment grounds.
Maybe what’s on a license plate matters more than we can ever know.
In 1928, Massachusetts issued a plate with a small fish on the bottom facing away from the state’s name. That year, the state’s commercial fishermen had one of the worst seasons ever. The state turned the fish around. Pointing toward “Mass.” the following year, the fishery rebounded.