The Province - - DRIVING - Lor­raine Sommerfeld

Is it time to ditch per­son­al­ized li­cence plates?

Li­cence plates are a tricky busi­ness. In 2013, New Brunswick screwed up in its reg­u­lar-is­sue plates (the only type that prov­ince al­lows), al­low­ing 1,000 of them with a let­ter com­bi­na­tion con­tain­ing the of­fen­sive “JAP” to carry on through. They were pulled back af­ter com­plaints of racism, and I’m hard pressed to be­lieve they ever got through in the first place. I’ve never seen a car sport­ing “ZIT” or “BUGR” on provin­cially is­sued plates. They know when to skip a com­bi­na­tion.

Que­bec only last year be­gan is­su­ing per­son­al­ized li­cence plates, fi­nally up­dat­ing com­puter equip­ment. Thus far, they ask that peo­ple re­frain from or­der­ing any­thing that is “morally ob­jec­tion­able.” Oh, Que­bec; you are at the start of a long and wind­ing road.

Part of the prob­lem is that li­cens­ing bod­ies need crys­tal balls to go along with the brass ones of some of their ap­pli­cants. It’s hu­man nature to try to chal­lenge the sys­tem, to get some­thing past the teacher. The list of re­jected plates all over the world is long and hu­mor­ous, and of­ten flat-out creepy. I pre­fer the in­spired ones that take the en­tire plate into play, in­clud­ing the pro­vin­cial or state word­ings. Years ago, Vir­ginia had “kids first” as its state slo­gan; some­one got EATTHE stamped into their metal plate. It took years for the state to re­al­ize the im­pli­ca­tion and yank them back.

That’s some­thing to keep in mind. You pay a pre­mium for per­son­al­ized plates in the prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries where they’re avail­able, but they re­main the prop­erty of the is­su­ing body. Re­cent head­lines found a man in Nova Sco­tia pre­pared to bat­tle in court to keep a plate sport­ing his fam­ily name from be­ing con­fis­cated. He’s had it since 1991. The prob­lem? His last name is Grab­her, and while I’m sure it raised a few eye­brows in pre­vi­ous years, the cur­rent pres­i­dent of the U.S. has hauled that par­tic­u­lar phrase down into the mud and rolled around with it on a global stage. Sorry, Lorne Grab­her.

I got my sis­ter van­ity plates for Christ­mas the year they were is­sued here in On­tario. The ex­cite­ment as she opened the box was pal­pa­ble for both of us, a 23-year-old get­ting such a cool present. My fa­ther was less cool when she held them up. ROZ, they de­clared. And un­der­neath? Yours to dis­cover. He didn’t have the same re­call power as the prov­ince, and the plates stayed.

Gov­ern­ing bod­ies put com­mit­tees in place to re­view ap­pli­ca­tions, and most re­gions re­port re­ject rates at around three per cent; most plates are fine. But the In­ter­net has pro­duced an ex­plo­sively fer­tile ground for the growth of slang. What was OK a few years ago, or even months, can turn on a dime. How do you keep up with it? It’s one thing to say no to any­thing with sex­ual con­no­ta­tions/ slang/ad­ver­tis­ing, drug/al­co­hol con­no­ta­tions, crim­i­nal con­no­ta­tions, gen­eral or deroga­tory slang, racial/ eth­nic slang or po­lit­i­cal con­no­ta­tions, but how hard is it to po­lice it?

Com­mit­tees have to do Google searches and hit trans­la­tor sites, much as car man­u­fac­tur­ers do when nam­ing a car. If the re­quest means some­thing rude in Ukrainian, it’ll be stubbed out. In­creas­ingly, how­ever, it’s sites like Ur­ban Dic­tionary that are needed to stay cur­rent. The on­line ref­er­ence site moves as fast as our chang­ing cul­ture, of­ten set­ting it. If Ur­ban Dic­tionary says it’s rude, your chances just tum­bled. Of course, what might be OK to­day could en­ter the al­ter-ver­nac­u­lar in a year or two, and your once in­no­cent plate could still be re­trieved.

For all the bi­nary nerds who tried to get 1000101, they’ve caught on. In fact, Cal­i­for­nia has ex­pres­sively stated it will not is­sue any plates with “69” in them un­less that is the year of the car, but thanks for try­ing.

A Star Trek fan in Man­i­toba had a plate yanked that said “ASIMIL8.” He’d had it two years, also sport­ing a plate cover with Star Trek slo­gans. Fans would get the ref­er­ence, but the prov­ince fi­nally deemed it was in­sen­si­tive and of­fen­sive to indige­nous peo­ple where that word is loaded with a back his­tory that shouldn’t be for­got­ten, and cer­tainly not tossed around.

Most of our ju­ris­dic­tions run ap­pli­ca­tions through a gamut of mean­ings tests, and also con­sider the com­bi­na­tion be­ing read up­side down or in a mir­ror. In most cases they stay ahead, but the Man­i­toba plate trig­gered cries about free speech.

I called Saskatchewan to see how it han­dled plate is­suances. The rules line up with most other re­gions, though I espe­cially like the sec­ond line:

“All slo­gans are checked in Ur­ban Dic­tionary, Google search, Wikipedia and trans­la­tion sites. If a slo­gan is found to be from a language the is­suer is not fa­mil­iar with, we may ap­proach an el­der or a con­tact from that com­mu­nity,” said Tyler McMurchy of Saskatchewan Gov­ern­ment In­sur­ance (SGI). Nine mem­bers of that group — all mul­ti­cul­tural with mul­ti­ple lev­els of education and job po­si­tions — make up the prov­ince’s Per­son­al­ized Li­cence Plate com­mit­tee.

“If the slo­gan re­quest is of­fen­sive, sug­ges­tive, not in good taste, or does not com­ply with our rules, the is­suer will deny the ap­pli­ca­tion,” he says. “The re­quester may ap­peal the de­ci­sion and at that time we will send the re­quest to the Per­son­al­ized Li­cence Plate (PLP) com­mit­tee for a vote. Al­ter­na­tively, if the slo­gan is ques­tion­able, the re­quest is sent to the PLP com­mit­tee for a vote.”

Are we overly sen­si­tive? Or is this just why we can’t have nice things?


Lorne Grab­her is fight­ing to keep the per­son­al­ized li­cence plate he’s been driv­ing around with since 1991.

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