Oh so vainPBy JOSEPH ROBERTIAPulling up at a stop light, your eyes wander to the license plate on the vehicle in front of you. But, rather than the usual meaningless jumble of six letters, this plate is carrying a message.
You read it over and over, wracking your brain to decipher the code. Is it a secret message? Are you missing a good joke? If only you had kept that decoder ring from the bottom of the cereal box when you were a kid.
Finally, just as your mind is about to snap or the light is to turn green whichever comes first it comes to you.
The license plate "QTPA2T" is an abbreviation for "cutie-patootie," which is itself somewhat of an abbreviated term for "someone who is very cute."
Living in Alaska, it's hard not to notice vanity and other specialty plates on the vehicle in front of you, since more than 3,000 Alaskans apply for them each month, according to officials at the Division of Motor Vehicles.
"They're very popular," said Duane Bannock, director of the DMV and a vanity plate owner himself with "RUN DMV" on his vehicle.
Bannock admitted he is a huge fan of vanity plates.
"They're my favorite subject at the DMV. They take plates from a boring, mundane, bureaucratic function and turn them into fun auto jewelry," he said.
The first license plates in Alaska orange letters on a black background were issued back in 1922. The first vanity plates didn't roll off the press until 1964, according to DMV records.
Currently, Alaska vanity plate holders must spell out their cryptic codes with only two to six digits, as opposed to up to seven digits offered by some other states in the country. Bannock said this still allows for tremendous variety in the messages being transmitted on the front and back of cars, trucks and motorcycles.
"People are very creative with those six digits. A lot of plates are really tough to figure out. You have to look and really think about what they are," he said.
Some are easier than others. Personal names, such as "KRISTN," "KELI," "DAVID" and "PATRCK" are no-brainers.
The connection between the make and model of the vehicle and the plate such as "HUMMER" on a new Humvee also makes for easy understanding.
"Some people use the plates to show off their car, or their love for their car," Bannock said.
One such car buff is Kenai resident Dan Walters, who cares for his royal blue 1997 Ford F350 like it was an extension of himself.
"It's the last of its kind the last of a tough truck. They don't make them like that anymore," Walters said.
The following year Ford made several changes to this model truck, including a more rounded body style and a smaller motor. That's why Walters cherishes the one he has.
"I'm proud of it. I spend a lot of time keeping it up. I work on it and modify it in my down time. I keep it clean by washing it once a week and waxing it once a month," he said.
Not just any old plate would do for the truck. Much like an art collector wouldn't display a Picasso by hanging it in a frame from Walmart, Walter's wouldn't consider putting a standard-issue plate on his ride.
"The plate just makes it stand out even more," he said.
The plate reads "BLU 4X4," but Walters said he originally toyed with the idea of "OLD BLU."
Not all plates are as simple to understand. Some involve looking for subtle clues, such as the context of where the vehicle is parked, to determine the meaning.
"EWOK 23" may not make sense until you notice the vehicle is parked in front of a movie theater playing the latest "Star Wars" flick. "24 KT" is equally mysterious in traffic, but once the vehicle pulls into a jewelry store parking lot it becomes clear it stands for "24 karat." And, "YPEKIA" looks undecipherable, until you see the cow poke who drives it pulling into the rodeo grounds "Yippie-ki-yeah!"
Sometimes further clues are needed to solve the riddle, such as stickers on the vehicles or a tip from the license plate frame.
"DWJWD" is a tough one, but the emblem of a Christian fish on the rear of the car sheds a little light on the plate's meaning. After seeing the car owner pull into Cook Inlet Academy, the religious message of "Do What Jesus Would Do" becomes more obvious.
Louresta Lankard adorns her bright yellow Hummer with the plate "HVMRCY," which she said means "have mercy."
"I think everyone should have compassion. We need to heal, to start healing in the United States," Lankard said.
Other religiously inspired license plates are not as difficult to discern. The message is pretty straight forward on plates that read "ONEGOD," "LUVGOD," "JESUS" and "SAVED."
For those at the opposite end of the religious spectrum, there's the plate "SINNER."
Much like these plates express a person's faith, or lack thereof, many vanity plates express the vehicle owners' hobbies or interests.
The plate "LVQLTN" on a car parked outside the 11th annual Quilting on the Kenai event recently made clear how the person spends their free time they "love quilting." Similarly, "MUSH AK" on a dog truck may seem out of place in summer but makes sense once the snow flies and the dog mushing season begins.
Bannock said he knew of a couple of fishing guides on the peninsula with the plates "FISHON" and "GNFSHN" for when they have "gone fishing."
Anyone who knows Soldotna resident Erin Gahringer knows she lives to fish.
"I like to fish. I like to catch fish. I fish whenever I can and as much as I can," Gahringer said.
That's why she got plates that read the same as her Internet handle "FSHGRL," which stands for "fish girl."
"It's who I am so it seemed appropriate for me," she said.
Like Gahringer, Charlotte Romberg of Soldotna uses her plates to display her passion for playtime activities hockey, in particular.
"I'm big into all sports and hockey's my favorite," Rom-berg said.
About a year ago, she, the coach of her hockey team and the other team players decided to get hockey-themed plates.
"One player got one that says 'GO2SK8,' and a few players got 'SK8' and then their number after it. I'm the goalie so mine says 'NO GOAL,'" Romberg said.
Her plates, however, have led to a bit of confusion. Although she has a hockey-themed license plate frame, some curious passers-by have have still misunderstood the plate's meaning.
"I've had a lot of people ask me if it means 'Do I have no goals in life,'" she said.
Although many who have vanity plates use them as a form of self expression, some see the plates as an opportunity for advertising, as well.
"I know a car dealer that has 'SELL IT' on his plates and a realtor that has 'SOLD IT,'" Bannock said.
A Mary Kay cosmetics dealer in Kenai has "MK4YOU" on her Subaru, and Soldotna artist Sandra Hecht the owner of a bed and breakfast and commercial tailoring store the Sterling Needle displays her business and her passion on her plates that read "ARTLOV."
"I think the plate is a combination. It's advertising for what I do and a political statement since I not only have been doing original art for 20 years, but also because I'm an art lover and I advocate the arts," Hecht said.
Some people take sharing what's on their mind to the extreme with their plates, such as Soldotna resident Trevor Metteer, whose plates read "HATEME."
"I like to speed a lot, or at least I used to until my insurance rates skyrocketed. My driving made a lot of people mad," Metteer said.
So, to contend with other people's road rage, he opted for the plates.
"Now when people flip me off they can read the plate. I've got one on the back and the other I leave on the dashboard to hold up for them to read," he said.
Such bold plates aren't exactly what Metteer's father would have liked him to get.
"I don't know why he did it, but I could think of something a little better," Mike Metteer said.
The young Metteer stands by his choice.
"They're original and that's how I like to live," he said.
Although Metteer's plates don't quite cross the line of what is and is not allowed by the DMV, they do come close.
"There are rules to keep offensive plates off the street and we err on the side of caution," Bannock said, adding that they will not issue plates with ethnic, racial or sexually indecent connotations or plates that could be considered in poor taste.
Would-be criminals might want to think twice about vanity plates, as well.
"They're more readily identifiable and easier to remember if we get a broadcast to be on the lookout for a vehicle with one," said Sgt. Mark Ridling with the Soldotna E Detachment of Alaska State Troopers.
Other than that, though, he said vanity plates affect his job very little since it's difficult to determine the exact meaning of a vanity plate. For example, "GUN RNR" could just as easily be the plate of a gun shop owner as it could be a arms-smuggling bandit.
"You just never know," Ridling said, "so we're cautious and careful on every stop we make."
By and large, Bannock said most people who apply for vanity plates do it for fun, which is why the DMV supports the sale of vanity plates and is working to make the application process easier.
"The goal of the DMV is to increase the number of personalized plates and we are continually trying to further automate and speed up the process," Bannock said.
Currently, the process for applying for vanity plates can be done over the Internet at the DMV's Internet site, located at www.state.ak.us/dmv. The process to see if a plate idea is already taken is trial and error.
"As long as the vehicle a plate is on stays registered, no one else can get that vanity plate," Bannock said.
The system will deny a plate request if a duplicate already exists. Accepted orders take 12 weeks and there is an issuance fee of $30.
"There's also legislation to increase the number of vanity plates and to standardize the rules," Bannock said, referring to House Bill 178, which would change the current practice of restricting the use of vanity plates to passenger vehicles, motorcycles, noncommercial vans, pickups and motor homes.
House Bill 178 would allow all motor vehicles owners, including those used in commercial activities, to display vanity or specialty plates in order to generate additional revenue for the State of Alaska.
Bannock said the DMV is trying to make the choice of vanity plates more diverse by combing them with other existing personalized plates and plans for more plate designs in the future.
"Currently, the DMV offers 32 specialty plates," he said, In addition to vanity plates, DMV offers amateur radio call sign plates, charitable exempt plates, church exempt plates, children's trust plates, disability plates, disabled veteran plates, farm plates, historic plates, military plates, prisoner of war plates, transferring plates, university plates and veteran plates.
There's also three different plate styles to choose from now that the centennial gold rush plate has ended. Current plate styles include a standard yellow with blue letters; a blue and white mountain background; and a plate with a caribou silhouette, blue background and yellow starred dipper from the Alaska flag in the center.
"Soon, we'll also be offering a limited edition plate that will change every year, and we'll be starting by bringing back some of the old plates like the grizzly bear," Bannock said, referring to the plate which ran from 1976 to 1983.
"People will soon have lots of options to choose from," Bannock said, which, in license plate terms means "NU WYS 2 XPRSS YRSLF."
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