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Lawmaker: Standardizing special license plates would help police

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PHOENIX – When a law officer or witness has only a split second to identify a vehicle, Arizona’s abundance of special license plates causes unnecessary difficulty, a state lawmaker contends.

“Now that we have so many special plates that are so different in designs from our standard Arizona plate, it has become a public safety issue,” said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson.

SB 1206, authored by Farley, would require all future special license plates approved by the Legislature to have a standard design that includes a 3-inch box where a personalized design could be inserted. That would be a similar to a system used in Maryland, Farley said.

The Senate passed the bill last month, and it was awaiting action by the House Rules Committee before proceeding to the floor.

The Arizona Department of Transportation currently offers 56 special license plates acknowledging everything from sports teams to veterans to Arizona’s centennial to child abuse prevention. Proceeds from the plates go to various nonprofit organizations.

Lawmakers attempted to create another seven special plates this session honoring extraordinary teachers, fallen heroes, Girl Scouts and more.

If the bill to create a special plate becomes law, the nonprofit that stands to benefit has to pay ADOT $32,000 to start the manufacturing process. The special plates cost the public $25, with $17 going to the nonprofit.

Jen Sweeney, deputy director of the Arizona Association of Counties, said that the sheriffs in the state support the bill for safety reasons.

“From a public safety and law enforcement perspective, Arizona plates should be easily recognizable as Arizona plates. That’s the whole point of their existence,” Sweeney said.

Farley said that officials with the Arizona Department of Public Safety have said officers are worried they won’t be able to readily identify special license plates.

“DPS had said that its getting more difficult for their officers to identify the plates, and a lot of the reason we need these plates is for casual witnesses to crimes who aren’t trained,” Farley said. “DPS officers are trained in identification, the average person who witnesses a crime is not.”

A DPS spokesman said the agency can’t comment on pending legislation.

At a meeting of the Senate Transportation Committee, Farley distributed a handout challenging lawmakers to identify Arizona special plates against standard plates from other states.

Farley said the Arizona Masonic Fraternity license plate, for example, is often mistaken for Washington state’s standard plate because it contains a symbol that resembles the mountain on Washington’s plate.

“They might misidentify a plate as being from the state of Washington when in fact it’s a special plate from Arizona,” Farley said. “That can even cause more problems.”

Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, one of eight senators who voted against Farley’s bill on the floor, said he doesn’t see special license plates as a public safety concern.

“I think the license plates as they currently are are perfect,” Meza said in an interview. “They’re creative, they’re big, they’re colorful. And I think what his bill does is it limits the creativity of the license plates.”

Farley said he’d eventually like to see special license plates leave the Legislature’s hands and be handled solely by ADOT.

“It just clogs up our schedule down here,” Farley said. “Every time a special plate comes through we have to take the committee time, it costs $4,000 of taxpayer money to run a bill through.”