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Lawmaker: Standardizing special license plates would reduce confusion

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Arizona’s dozens of special license plates are a way to not only express individuality but to support causes such as breast cancer awareness or one’s favorite state university.

But a state lawmaker contends the many designs on these plates can make it difficult for law enforcement and those who witness crimes to distinguish them from out-of-state plates.

To reduce that confusion, Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, wants to require a standard design for any new special license plates.

To illustrate his point, Farley gave the Senate Transportation Committee a sheet with several dozen plates, some Arizona special plates and some from other states. Among them: an Arizona plate supporting Freemasonry that because of a mountain it features looks very similar to Washington state’s standard license plate.

“So we end up with a big problem for law enforcement and, more importantly, casual witnesses to crimes who may have only a split second to identify the plate number and where it’s from,” he said. “And if you don’t know it’s from Arizona, obviously you’re in trouble.”

Farley’s SB 1106 would standardize special license plates while still allowing a level of uniqueness by providing a 3-inch section where a customizable design could be placed while offering the name of the organization or cause below the license number.

The committee voted unanimously Feb. 3 to advance the bill, forwarding it to the Senate floor by way of the Rules Committee. It’s the same as a measure Farley authored two years ago that won Senate approval and was held in the House.

Special license plates are created by state law to benefit a specified group, provided the sponsoring nonprofit puts up $32,000 for the Arizona Department of Transportation to create it. The annual cost for a special plate is $25, of which $17 goes to the designated beneficiary.

Available themes range from Girl Scouts to the environment to child abuse prevention to Arizona’s centennial. Special plates are a popular subject for legislation; so far this legislation, 11 bills seek new plates featuring community colleges, first responders and more.

Farley said his bill wouldn’t change the design of any current special license plates and would apply only to new plates.

“This prospective solution is taking after what Maryland is doing in which they have a 3-inch square in which people can customize however that would look,” he said.

Megan Kintner, a lobbyist from the Arizona Association of Counties, said all 15 county sheriffs support the bill and have opposed all new license plates for the last several years based on public safety concerns.

“We believe it is a win-win for everybody because there is a new uniform standard to make it easy for law enforcement as well as citizens to quickly identify license plates,” she said.