Best and worst license platesAmerica says: Give us cowboys and rainbows on our bumpers.

In a just-released survey from, Wyoming’s license plate, with its emblematic bucking horse and rider silhouetted against a blue Teton Range, was voted the favorite, with nearly a third of the 2,000 respondents ranking it among the top five standard-issue designs in the country.

“We don’t seem to hear too much complaining about it,” said Bruce Burrows, of Wyoming’s Department of Transportation. “Every so often we do change out that background.”

That beloved cowboy image, trademarked and used throughout the state, was created a century ago by 1st Sgt. George N. Ostrom and emblazoned on Wyoming National Guard uniforms in World War I. It has been featured on Wyoming’s license plates since 1936.

States with well-liked designs tend to stick with a good thing:

  • A corner-to-corner rainbow has graced license plates in second-place Hawaii since 1991.
  • Utah has two standard plates: one depicts an iconic giant red-rock arch and came in third overall, but its other plate features a skier and a much-beloved motto that dates to the mid ’80s, “Greatest Snow on Earth.”
  • Fourth-place Alabama’s “Sweet Home Alabama” plate dates to just 2009, but the song has been the state’s unofficial anthem since Lynyrd Skynyrd’s iconic opening riff hit airwaves back in 1974. Alas, state law requires a new plate every five years. The brand-new 2014 plate has no motto at all.
  • Fifth-place Oregon has stuck with its fir-and-mountains landscape since 1989.

Readers can see all state plates and choose their own favorites at The Great Plate Rate.

Rank State
7South Carolina
13North Dakota
17New Hampshire
22South Dakota
24North Carolina
28Rhode Island
29New Mexico
34West Virginia
39New Jersey
44District of Columbia
46New York


Plates were ranked by “Most Attractive” votes minus “Least Attractive” votes from the initial survey group, which was proportionately distributed geographically.

Postcards from the edge

Asked to select the five least appealing standard-issue plates from the 50 states and the District of Columbia, nearly half the respondents chose Delaware’s. The tiny state’s gold-on-blue license plate has no art, just a motto: “The First State.”

Other losers in the survey:

  • Arkansas, with its barely-there white diamond (representing its diamond mines) and motto “The Natural State.”
  • Michigan, with a stylized blue wave, the motto “Pure Michigan” and the state’s web address.
  • Alaska’s blue-on-gold “Last Frontier” plates. (The state’s 1921 plates, of which there are only four or five remaining, may be the most highly valued collector plates in the country, fetching some $20,000).
  • Virginia, which went very bold by going very plain: white plate, black type, no picture, no motto. Perhaps not coincidentally, Virginia also has the highest percentage of drivers — one-sixth — who opt to pay extra for a specialty plate, according to a 2007 survey by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

While technology now allows for complicated, multicolor designs — printed on plastic and adhered to an aluminum back — it’s the easily identifiable, iconic symbols that remain most popular: the Florida orange and the Georgia peach, for instance, also ranked among the top 10 in the survey.

Many states leave the flashy stuff to extra-cost specialty plates.

“The standard-issue plates are plainer and plainer, because all of the optional ones are filling in the interest,” said Jeff Minard, a research historian with the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association. “Today’s Texas is black on white and just says, ‘Texas.’ The bigger states have to consider cost. Plain is easier.”

Invisible, until it’s not

States began to issue license plates 110 years ago. Owners initially were 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 they did in 2003, when Kentucky released a license plate featuring a rising sun with a giant smiley face, along with the motto, “Kentucky: It’s that friendly.”

Residents promptly took pen 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.

Oregon, too, had to hit re-start after launching a new design in the mid ’80s that featured a faded green tree against a tan sky. The poor fir tree looked like it was dead, triggering public outrage and highlighting the role the little car license plate plays in reflecting state pride.

“People said, ‘I’m not going to let some Californian laugh at my license plate. I’m proud to be an Oregonian,’ ” Minard said. “The state said, All right, we’re going to fix it. Sorry, sorry.”

A little poetry, please

License plates’ crucial role, of course, is for identification. When more people started driving more places, however, the plate’s design took on the role it has continued to serve to this day: to entice travelers to visit the state.

In the survey, 13 percent of respondents said a plate had inspired a vacation or relocation, most often citing Florida.

The right motto also can win fans. “Sweet Home Alabama” was the top vote-getter among states that displayed a slogan, closely followed by New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die.” Washington D.C.’s assertive “Taxation Without Representation” brought up the rear.

  1. Alabama: Sweet Home Alabama
  2. New Hampshire: Live Free or Die
  3. Hawaii: Aloha State
  4. Alaska: The Last Frontier
  5. Florida: MyFlorida.Com / Sunshine State
  6. Texas: The Lone Star State
  7. West Virginia: Wild, Wonderful
  8. New York: Empire State
  9. Georgia: Peach State
  10. Arizona: Grand Canyon State

Among states that displayed only a web address, such as California, the clear message from respondents was: Leave the search advice to Google.

Thirty-one states require a front plate as well as one on the rear. Tickets for missing license plates, assuming the registration is valid, generally do not go on the driver’s motor vehicle record as a moving violation and are thus unseen by auto insurance companies.  They should not affect the rates you see the next time you compare insurance companies.

It’s art, and sometimes more

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 said that requiring people to display repugnant messaging on their cars violated their First Amendment rights to free speech.

Maybe what’s on a license plate matters more than we can ever know.

In 1928, Massachusetts issued a plate that had a small fish on the bottom facing away from the state’s name. That year, the state’s commercial fishermen had the one of the worst seasons on record. The DMV fired the employee responsible for the design and turned the fish around.

Pointing toward “Mass” the following year, the fishery rebounded.

author image
Karen Aho

Our team is made up of regular people with insurance policy needs, just like you. We just happen to know a little more about insurance than the average bear.