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All eyes on you: Special license plates for drunken drivers

Amy Higgins

Drunken drivers are the cause of thousands of car accidents and deaths in the United States. In 2009, nearly 11,000 people were killed in car crashes involving a driver with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or higher, according to anti-drunken driving organization the Century Council.

As a result, state laws require these drivers to atone for their misconduct with punishments in the form of fines, suspension of driving privileges and jail time. Auto insurance companies charge higher premiums for drunken drivers or deny them coverage altogether. And, in some states, drunken drivers face an additional penalty — being branded in the form of special license plates.

State laws

In Ohio, people convicted of drunken driving are required to put unique license plates on any cars in their name after their driving privileges are reinstated. According to the Ohio Insurance Institute, these “restricted” plates are yellow with red lettering — and stand out from the state’s regular plates, which feature a tranquil scene with a barn and a biplane.

License plates for “hard core” drunken drivers in Minnesota are etched with a special sequence of letters (WX or XY), according to the Century Council. Minnesota law allows officers to pull over vehicles with these special plates at any time to check the status of the driver’s license. Those who must get these plates include Minnesotans whose drunken driving offenses also include one of the following factors:

  • The offense occurs fewer than 10 years after a previous impaired-driving offense.
  • The driver’s blood-alcohol concentration is 0.20 percent or above.
  • A child under 16 is in the vehicle.
  • The driver’s license already is suspended for another violation.

Some states are considering getting on board with similar laws. For example, Washington state lawmakers introduced a bill in February 2011 that would expose convicted drunken drivers by distinguishing their plates with an uppercase letter Z at the end of the sequence of numbers and letters. These Z-designated plates would cost offenders an additional $100 for a vehicle and $25 for a motorcycle or moped.

Pros and cons

Supporters of special license plates for drunken drivers claim they can help law enforcement be on the lookout for potential repeat offenders — and can act as an incentive for drivers to think before taking the wheel after drinking. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the average drunken driver has driven while intoxicated 87 times before a first arrest, and many are repeat offenders even after that first arrest.

Opponents, meanwhile, argue that the plates bring an unfair stigma to those who are attempting to make up for their past actions — and that there’s no proof that the plates curtail drunken driving offenses.

A different approach

While altered license plates may help law enforcement identify drunken drivers, several states have attempted to lower their drunken driving rates without tagging their residents. Ignition interlock devices, for example, are becoming mandatory or encouraged in more and more states, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Interlock devices are attached to a vehicle’s ignition system. To start a vehicle, the driver must blow into the device to prove that he or she is not impaired. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Utah and Washington have made ignition interlocks mandatory after all drunken driving convictions, including first-time offenses.

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