License Plate Lore

By Jo McIntyre

Are Oregon’s special license plates a political statement, a fundraiser for a cause, a code that tells something about the driver—or at least the car owner, or a combination of all those? Specialty plates may be the new “bumper sticker” of society, giving others a clue to the driver’s beliefs.

“I remember when everybody used to buy bumper stickers and put them on their car,” said Lisa Reisman, public relations specialist, who has donated her time to help the Crater Lake plate campaign.

“Today, cars are so expensive their owners may be reluctant to do that any more.” Or maybe it’s a climate thing—Florida has 89 special plates. California has 12, plus three military base plates, and one for UCLA. Washington has one for the Seattle Mariners, plus three university booster plates and three for military bases. Oregon has four special plates, period. We can speculate about the intellectual proclivities of the three Western states based on university plates offered, ... but we won’t.

To get a grip on numbers, we called David House, DMV public information officer. He said Oregon has 2.8 million standard plates (green tree) and 283,000 special plates currently on passenger cars. Other vehicles, like trailers and motor homes, wear 130,142 standard plates and about 24,000 special plates.

Oregon Trail plates have a covered wagon. Salmon plates, naturally, show a salmon. The Crater Lake plate features a deep blue lake. The Cultural Trust plate has, uh, um, a sort of orange blob on it.

“Designed by Kelly Kievit, a fine artist and graphic designer from Portland, the plate’s design intentionally avoids using recognizable images or trying to represent “culture” pictorially; rather, it is an abstract series of color overlays creating a warm field of color,” explained a July 2003 press release from Oregon Cultural Trust, beneficiary of funds raised by plate sales.

The now-ended Oregon Trail program lasted ten years. About 190,000 plates are still on the road, but 575,000 in all have been sold. Salmon plates are six years old and about 41,000 current circulate. Crater Lake plates, out a year and a half, have sold almost 100,000. The Cultural Trust program is a year old and 5,375 plates have sold.

Hmmm, ten years, six years, one and a half years and one year. Anyone see a trend here? The Legislature did, and last year decided to limit special plates to four—the existing ones. Any new plate will require an earlier plate to be retired. Look for fundraisers’ fur flying in the future! Some differences in plates sold are related to the program’s age, but another influence is price and frequency of the surcharge. No matter how we may feel about an issue, a one-time surcharge (Oregon Trail at $5 or Crater Lake at $20) is more likely to attract buyers than a $30 surcharge every two years (Salmon and Cultural Trust).*

Crater Lake money goes into a fund to build a research and educational facility at Oregon’s only national park. The goal is to attract more scientific researchers and accommodate more school tours that visit the park, Reisman said.

Salmon money is shared equally by the Governor’s Watershed Enhancement Board and state parks. Cultural Trust money goes to the Oregon Arts Commission. Oregon Trail money went to the Oregon Historic Trails Fund, operated by the Oregon Community Foundation.

Total payouts to these groups, as of April this year in round figures and after supporter-paid expenses of about $100,000, to get their plates designed and printed, were: Crater Lake, $510,000; Cultural Trust, $115,000; Salmon, $475,000; and Oregon Trail, $2,003,000. “It looks as if the Crater Lake plate surpassed the Salmon plate in 1.5 year vs. six years,” House noted. “The Oregon Trail plate is no longer available, so that figure is not going to grow any more.”


*For those who just got their renewal notices, total cost to renew a special license plate is $54 standard fee, $30 or $20 for the special plate fee, plus an extra $10 for the new plates.

SIDEBAR: Plate spotting: Maybe an ironic political statement? Aren’t gas-guzzling American behemoth vehicles supposed to be bad for the environment? Isn’t the salmon plate supposed to indicate support for ‘green’ policies? We saw a salmon plate at Linn County Fairgrounds on a brand new Ford Expedition. What’s that about?

According to the EPA’s fuel economy guide from the U.S. Dept of Energy, this baby gets 14 mpg in the city, 18 mpg on the highway and window sticker price of a cool $42,000. On I-5 just south of downtown Portland, a nearly new Chevy Suburban sported a salmon plate. The 4x4 gets 14 mpg in the city, and 18 mpg on the highway. Depending on age and condition, it can cost from $10,000 to $29,000. Brand new, the Suburban costs about $45,000. Suburbans are bigger than the Expedition, according to Raul Murphy of Chuck Colvin Ford in McMinnville, but because both are V-8s, they have about the same fuel economy.

BrainstormNW - June 2004

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