Driving around a snowy south-central Alaska, I've noticed that Alaskans love to share their quirky identities and unique viewpoints with the world, using their automobiles as the perfect pulpit. Just by taking a quick look at many Alaskan bumpers, you immediately know the driver’s stance on politics, religion, Ford trucks, and honor students. Those who are truly committed to their self-defined identities - and want their cars to show it - opt for vanity plates.
Hardly unique to Alaska, vanity plates have been a fixture across the U.S. since 1931. There are currently a sizable 9.7 million of them across all U.S. states and territories. Most states allow a combination of a few letters, numbers, and spaces, as long as the message isn’t obscene or offensive, such as the recent case of a vegetarian, tofu-loving Coloradan who was denied her request for a license plate reading: ILVTOFU.
Although somewhat popular in Canada, vanity plates are still unheard of in most of the world. After their introduction in the UK less than 20 years ago, they are only now starting to gain popularity outside of the champagne-drinking, Lamborghini-owning, James Bond-wannabe set. In the handful of European countries that have allowed them since 2006, they are still considered a vain extravagance.
With the rest of the world playing catch-up in the vanity plate game, the U.S. is the place to see and be seen in a car with license plates proclaiming the inspiring messages of HOPE, PEACE, and DUUUDE. Since moving to Alaska ten years ago, I have noticed that vanity plates are especially prevalent here in the last frontier. This initially struck me as odd because Alaskans are not a particularly vain bunch. We usually care more about staying warm than looking good and some of our residents outgrunge even the grungiest 1990s Seattle garage bands. Thus, it came as no shock when I later found that vanity plates are actually called “personalized license plates” here in the vanity-free 49th state.
Data from the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles reveals that for 2008, approximately 7% of standard passenger car plates and 10% of all motorcycle plates were personalized. Even our most renowned resident, Sarah Palin, sports one reading FE K9, short for the Iron Dog snowmobile race across Alaska that her former "First Dude" hubby won an earth-shattering four times.
Personalized plates may be popular in Alaska because our DMV makes shopping for them an inexpensive and entertaining experience. On the Alaska DMV website, you simply select your favorite plate design (most are $30); type in a 6-character combination of letters, numbers and spaces; and viola - your custom plate appears onscreen in all its virtual and personalized glory. You can also spend hours checking out which, if any, obscenities the Alaska DMV would allow on their plates. After 10 minutes of trying, the worst I could get were SEX and POOPY.
Many of the personalized plates in Alaska are much like those in the rest of the US, simply stating the driver’s name or initials, like HENRY, BABS, and DJB. Others are indicative of the car owner’s profession, like WHEEZY outside an allergist’s office, SCRUBS outside a medical clothing & uniform supplier, and the subtle BUYART outside an art shop. Some are patriotic - USA - and others are eco-friendly - BE GRN. There is also the usual cadre of Star Trek and Harry Potter fans with plates that read WARP10 and SNAPE. Of course, there are plates for the people that you just don’t mess with, like AKRMBO and BLUDGN. And, like everywhere else, there are the downright undecipherable ones, like IXXI, PTKROZ, and M3B3P3.
But as you look at more and more personalized plates here in our plate-plentiful state, things get distinctively more Alaskan. Some, like 907GRL, use the state’s telephone area code in their plates. Others, like AKBRAT and AKANNE, use the state’s postal abbreviation. Many focus on the white stuff, like SNOW, SNOGRL, SNOWWM, and SNOWMN. Others display examples of Alaskans’ favorite pastimes - GOTICE (hockey), IRFSHN and LV2FSH(fishing), DIPNTR (dip netting), DRFTNT (drift netting), GUNGUY (guns), and, of course, SCRPBK (scrapbooking).When lumped into thematic categories, I’ve noticed that in south-central Alaska, the largest group of personalized plate holders seems to be Grandmas, from the short and sweet G MOM to the state-proud AK GMA to the inspiring FITGMA to the somewhat disturbing SXYGMA.
Far and away, the owners of cars with personalized plates more frequently appear to be female, perhaps because they are more assured of their identity or are more willing to make a long-term commitment to a personalized plate, while men may be more comfortable committing to a bumper sticker that can handily be scraped off or covered over with another prettier, younger bumper sticker.
I’m thinking about getting a personalized plate to promote my blog, possibly COOLAK. I’m not sure, though, because, when read phonetically, it may sound too much like a robotic villain from Dr. Who or an underground creature from an H.G. Wells novel. I also worry that my car would be too easily identified in a lineup if I were ever a getaway driver for a bank heist. Most likely, perhaps as someone who has always feared commitment and was labeled “Most Likely to Get Divorced” by my college roommate, I’m just too terrified to establish a highly visible one-year relationship with my license plate.