Colorado Is Making Drivers Trade In Their Old License Plates. Your State Could Be Next

It’s all about legibility, and screen-printed plates are easier to scan than stamped tags that wear from the elements.

byRob Stumpf|
Colorado Is Making Drivers Trade In Their Old License Plates. Your State Could Be Next
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Spend a lot of time behind other cars while commuting, and you inevitably end up spending a lot of time staring at license plates. The designs, colors, and custom lettering are just some of the things you may notice in traffic—and, perhaps depending on the state you call home, whether a plate's lettering is raised.

Millions of Coloradans are certainly starting to take notice of that last point, especially those trading in their car for something new. As it turns out, drivers in the Centennial State with old embossed plates are now required to replace their tags with newer screened plates (that is, from raised letters to flat, screen-printed plates) when buying a new vehicle.

The reasoning for the switch is simple. Over time, officials believe that wear and tear from the elements, driving, and even car washes cause the reflective finish of embossed plates to erode. Eventually, they can be worn all the way to the metal underneath, making them unable to be read by police and Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) technology used for toll roads, per KUSA.

Anyone who buys a new car will be required to get a new plate with a registration number. Colorado says that it will allow vehicle owners to keep their old number should they choose, though it will cost the same amount as if they purchased a customized plate: $93.06 after fees.

Now, Colorado isn't the only state to move away from embossed plates. In fact, over 20 other states in the U.S. use screened plates, including Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, Washington D.C., and others.

Some states have made the switch in recent years. Kansas, for example, moved from embossed to screened plates in 2018. The state decided to change to screened plates after its existing tags experienced both bubbling and wearing of the paint on the embossed area. Kansas' director of vehicle and property valuation, David Harper, said that the probable cause of the problem was "normal wear and tear" when it enacted the new design. And in 2021, the state estimated that of its 2.3 million registered cars, 1.1 million were still using older embossed plates.

New York is another state that has experienced issues with its embossed plates peeling. In 2019, the state decided not to renew its contract with 3M, which supplied the reflective material for its license plates. The state did not directly comment on speculation surrounding 3M's material being the reason behind the change, but instead said that it "continually review[s] and evaluate[s] all of its programs for quality and effectiveness." New York still uses embossed plates today, but offers replacements for peeling plates free of charge.

via Getty Images

Then there are states that are going above and beyond embossing, debossing, and screened plates—and Colorado is already one of them. A new trend of states legalizing digital license plates has been happening lately. The tech first started becoming popular around five years ago, which quickly resulted in some states trialing it and later allowing ordinary people to purchase such plates. Cost aside, could states one day mandate the move away from metal plates altogether?

Regardless of the factors at play here, license plates as a whole are a big business for companies. 3M even spearheaded an advertising campaign last year on a now-defunct website that advocated for more states to adopt front license plates under the name of safety. Colorado says that its new plates will help with safety too, but may also make it harder to skip tollways and avoid ALPR scanners—which is probably a pretty important factor.

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