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Alphabet soup


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POSTED: Saturday, February 20, 2010

QUESTION: I sometimes see cars with license plates that start with the letter E. That means they were issued a long time ago. I was just wondering, how often do the license plate numbers get rotated?

ANSWER: A lot depends on the economy.

The number of new license plates issued reflects the number of new cars sold and how quickly rental companies turn over their fleets, as well as the number of military personnel transferred here.

In 2003, Honolulu was issuing N plates. After going through the next approved letter series, P, the city is now issuing R plates.

“;The economy has had an extremely negative impact on new car sales, as reported by the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association,”; noted Dennis Kamimura, administrator of the city Motor Vehicle and Licensing Division.

(As reported in the Star-Bulletin last month — hsblinks.com/20d — a record 70,268 new vehicles were sold in Hawaii in 2005, but sales then dropped 4.3 percent in 2006, 14.4 percent in 2007, 25.6 percent in 2008 and 21.4 percent in 2009. This year, the car dealers association is projecting an increase in sales, but only 3 percent over last year.)

After the R plates make their run, the city will issue plates beginning with S, T, U, V, W, X, Y and Z.

Letters that aren't part of the first-letter series issued to Honolulu drivers are H, K and M, which are reserved for Hawaii, Kauai and Maui counties; L, which also is assigned to Maui; and O and I, because they are too similar to the numerals 0 and 1.

The plates beginning with E were first issued in 1991. That's when the city began using plates with the colorful rainbow as the background motif.

The Rainbow Series began with E to replace the A, B, C and D “;Warrior Head”; license plates that were first issued in 1981, Kamimura said.

Beginning with renewals in July 2004, because the reflective sheeting for the E plates had begun deteriorating, the city allowed car owners the option of retaining their E license plates or obtaining the N series plates that were being issued at that time, he said.

Many chose to get the newly produced E plates.

“;This is the reason why all the E series plates that we see on the road look new,”; Kamimura said.

Meanwhile, he said his office is considering using the same replacement process for the F series plates “;in the near future.”;

Interestingly, the city doesn't have a computer program spewing out all the different letter/number combinations for the license plates.

“;Our purchasing contract with the license plate vendor lists all the license plate series that we will be ordering,”; Kamimura explained.

But, he said, it is the office manager who prepares the listing for the contract, for example: RDN 001 to 999, RDP 001 to 999, RDR 001 to 999, RDS 001 to 999, etc.

As for changing the rainbow design as it nears its 20th anniversary, Kamimura says there are no plans to tinker with it.

“;Hawaii's rainbow design license plates continue to be rated by law enforcement as one of the best graphic designs as compared to other jurisdictions,”; he said.

Police like the rainbow design because it does not interfere with the readability of the license plate number, allowing for easier recall of the number “;under normal traffic conditions,”; he said.

What happens when the letter Z is reached?

Kamimura says his office still will have the option of issuing plates that begin with A, B, C and D, which previously were issued with the Warrior Head design, as well as the option of issuing plates for passenger vehicles with three numerals followed by three letters.

He said that numeral/letter series for passenger vehicles would not conflict with license plates with three numerals followed by three letters issued for the city's truck “;T”; series, trailer “;W”; series and motorcycle “;X”; series.

“;Studies have found that the three letters followed by three numbers and three numbers followed by three letters are the ideal license plate number combinations to remember and has the support of the law enforcement community,”; Kamimura said.

In the future, if the design of the license plates is changed, the city can continue the letter/numeral combination with whatever the new design is in the same way it changed from the warrior's head to the rainbow, he said.

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