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Are front license plates really necessary?

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Have you ever worried that a front license plate will scar the sculpted front end of your $200,000 exotic sports car (or much less expensive car) and turn it into an ugly duckling?

You're not alone. Front license plates are disliked by many, but another group -- which includes many law enforcement officers -- sees the issue differently.

Here are a few key facts on front license plates, along with the reasons most states require them.

States that skip the front plate

License plate requirements date back to 1925 and in the years since have become critical for law enforcement, tolling, parking and even border security.

While every state in the country requires a rear plate, there are currently 19 states that don't require a 12-inch by 6-inch piece of tin on the front bumper.

These are the states where only a rear license plate is required:

  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Michigan
  • North Carolina
  • Arizona
  • Indiana
  • Mississippi
  • South Carolina
  • Arkansas
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Delaware
  • Kentucky
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia
  • Florida
  • Louisiana
  • New Mexico

Why drivers hate front plates

Many drivers don't give much thought to the front plate but some car owners, classic and exotic car owners especially, hate the front plate because they feel it harms the aesthetic beauty of their vehicle.

Adam from San Francisco is an excellent example. Currently he has a 1967 Lotus Élan, a 1970 Triumph Spitfire and a 1980 Rover 3500 sitting in his garage and none of them has a front plate.

"In particular, the Lotus and Triumph have very classic designs, which are truly compromised by the addition of a front license plate," says Adam. "You rarely see either of these cars with a front plate. In fact, the Lotus doesn't even have a facility for a front license plate."

High-end automakers tend to agree. Many sports cars and the majority of exotic cars don't even have a spot for a front plate. Chevrolet offers a removable front plate bracket on the 2014 Corvette so owners can obey the law -- if they choose.

Jamming the plate into the glove box or under the front seat is not a work-around in most states. Laws vary but the majority of states require the plate to be mounted on the car in a clearly visible spot.

It's not just car collectors who like the front of their cars clean. Katie Hill has been pulled over twice by Texas State Troopers for driving without a plate, but she still hasn't put one on her car.

"It's purely aesthetic for me," she says. "The first car I owned didn't have one. The owners were from Georgia, which doesn't require a front plate. When I bought a new car, the dealer was going to install a front plate, but I told them I liked the look of the car more without (it)."

You may grumble that police have better things to do than write front-plate tickets. But that doesn't stop it from happening.

"It's not uncommon for Troopers to stop vehicles for license plate violations. Whether a ticket or verbal warning is issued depends upon each situation," says Trooper Tyler Weerden of the Connecticut State Police.

Fines vary, but $100 to $200 is common. In other states, a front plate violation is a fix-it ticket, which means you have to add a plate and then have it verified by the local police. Once it is fixed, the ticket goes away.

Luckily, a front plate ticket shouldn't affect your car insurance rates.

"A ticket for not having a front license plate is normally an equipment ticket that is generally ignored by insurance companies," says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst at Insure.com.

The financial impact of front license plates

Though aesthetics are almost always the key complaint for car owners, lawmakers have made other arguments against front plates. They say that the cost to make and distribute front plates is not worth the benefits.

But the costs of producing a license plate is minimal, according to a study done by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. State production costs for a license plate range from 50 cents to $5.65, the study reports. These production costs are passed on to drivers via registration fees.

While front plates don't cost much to produce, they do bring in huge amounts of revenue through tolls and violations.

Denver is a big winner in the front plate game. The A&M study found that front license plate scans were responsible for one-third, a whopping $23 million a year, of toll revenue generated from E-470, a toll road that circles the Mile High City.

The A&M study also found that the lack of a front plate could cost cities. Toll violators often walk (or drive) away scot-free in one-plate states. In Virginia, 23 percent of toll violations were not pursued because the rear license plate was unreadable.

The lack of front plates cause big problems (and costs big money) at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, which uses an Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) system to determine parking fees. The airport has to process roughly 15 percent of its transactions manually because glare on the rear plate makes it unreadable to the ALPR system.

Police and front license plates

While not all cops see the benefit of front plates, many of them say it's a plus.

Steve Albrecht, a retired officer with the San Diego Police Department says, "Having two plates makes it easier to locate stolen cars. This is especially true with police departments that use license plate reader systems."

License plate reader (LPR) technology has expanded rapidly into law enforcement over the last few years and having two plates to target definitely makes a difference. The federal government has funded LPRs for local police to the tune of more than $50 million, according to a 2012 Wall Street Journal report.

LPR uses a high-speed camera to photograph passing cars and identifies the license plate number, which is a checked against a "hot list" of violators and stolen cars.

According to the A&M study, every year roughly 25,000 vehicles are stolen in the city of Chicago. A LPR can read 10,000 plates over an eight-hour shift. The number could be cut in half if Illinois only required a rear plate.

It's not just car-theft victims who benefit from front plates. "A big advantage to having both plates is that witnesses and victims have a better chance of seeing the license plate of suspicious vehicles involved in crimes regardless of which way they're driving," says Weerden.

So whether you love or hate the front plate, this small badge has a significant impact on law enforcement and government revenue, and that's likely to keep them around -- at least in some states -- for the foreseeable future.

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