A Brief Overview of Vehicle Registration Plates

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Vehicle registration platesare ubiquitous in almost every nation on Earth with a sufficiently developed road system. There are some minor variations between the systems of different principalities, but the principle remains the same: that every vehicle on the road be given a unique identifier, which corresponds to an entry on a central government database. Some nations, such as those within the European Union, have conspired to bring their respective numbering systems into line with one another, in order to avoid coincidences.

Vehicle Registration Plates


What are they used for?

Number plates have a wide variety of uses. Since they provide a means of tracking the ownership of any vehicle involved in a crime, they are obviously useful to law enforcement agencies, such as the police and traffic wardens.

They are also used by private companies for a number of means. Online spare part shops might use them as a means of establishing exactly what model of car their customer is driving, so as to offer them parts tailored to their needs. Similarly, garages might use them in order to deliver a quote for an MOT or service, or price comparison sites like mycarneedsa.com might use them to track down the best MOT and Service Deals from a wide range of garages.

When did they come about?

It has been a legal requirement that every vehicle in the United Kingdom display their registration for more than a century, with the database of vehicles first introduced with Motor Car Act of 1903.  At the time, there were very few laws governing road safety – and these few were unenforceable, owing to the difficulty of identifying the vehicle. It was therefore decided that a numbering system be introduced.

The act also raised the speed limit on public highways from 14 to 20 mph. It also for the first time mandatedthat all drivers carry licences – though no test was required: the aspiring motorist simply needed to pay a fixed fee of five shillings the issuing council. In hindsight, this might seem strange – even mad. But since there were barely any cars on the road at the time and of that number barely any could go faster than 20mph, safety was far less of a concern than it is today.

The numbering system for the registration plates was similarly rudimentary. It consisted of just one or two letters, followed by a number between 0 and 9,999. Of course, at the time, there were very few cars on the road and so such a numbering system was more than adequate. In the years that followed, the growth of the motor industry has necessitated several overhauls of the numbering system, in order to supply the motoring publicwith enough combinations to meet their demand.

What has changed since then?

Since their introduction, the system has undergone five major overhauls. In the thirties, it was decided that three letters followed by a number would be better – though these numbers and letters had no significance beyond the order in which they were handed out. Eventually, a point arrived where this system was insufficient and so another letter was appended in order to indicate the year in which a car was registered. This would continue for twenty-one years before the letters ran out (since certain letters, such as Z and O, were deemed too similar in shape to other letters and numbers to be used). Following this, the year letter would be shifted onto the front of the registration and continue in much the same way until the letters ran out again at the turn of the millennium.

Thelatest system is designed to last until the year 2050 before requiring another overhaul – though it is probable that by then numberplates will have been consigned to obsolescence.The modern British number plate consists of three clusters of characters: a pair of letters followed by a pair of numbers followed by a trio of letters. The foremost two pairs respectively describe the place and time the vehicle was registered, while thelatter cluster of three letters are completely random and simplyserve to further differentiate cars from one another.

Personalised Number Plates

Personalised (or vanity) number plates are a popular way for motorists to make their vehicle unique.  They are also a cheap source of income for the Department of Transport, whose revenues from personalised plates since 1989 are upwards of £1.8 billion. In the year 2012 alone they brought in £67 million.

Auctions are frequently held at locations throughout the country, in which licence plates are put up for sale and sold. Anyone able to drive in Britain can bid. The DVLA also provide a means of searching the database for available registrations plates; prices can range from a few hundred pounds to several thousand, with a record fee of £350,000 being paid in 2009 by a Lebanese businessman.