America, if nothing else, is rooted in car culture.
But cars are not just a mode of transportation. They’re also a form of expression. You can tell a lot about a person by the car he or she drives.
You can also tell a lot about drivers by the license plates they choose.
Of course, there are the standard white-background plates with a peach in the middle. Georgians know this look well.
More recently, the state has issued plates with a panoramic scene depicting peach trees and rolling green hills.
Then there are the hundreds of specialty plates that identity a driver’s occupation, military service, alma mater, hobbies and interests.
A portion of proceeds from the sale of specialty plates is generally distributed to sponsoring organizations, such as the wildlife conservation fund or Georgia State Soccer Association.
Sometimes, these plates generate controversy, as in the case of the newly minted plate featuring the Confederate flag.
But when it comes to self-expression, there’s nothing quite like a vanity plate.
GR8 DAD. THE BOSS. EPIC.
If you’ve requested these personalized plates, you’re likely the proud owner of a car other motorists point out on the road.
Vanity plates are a big, funny and sometimes revolting business in Georgia.
Each year, about 15,000 requests are made for vanity plates, producing more than $8.6 million in revenue in the current fiscal year.
But for every ILUVBBQ and MOMROKS, there are thousands of requests for vanity plates the state has denied.
The Times obtained a list of about 8,000 rejected plates from the Georgia Department of Revenue, Motor Vehicles Division.
Perusing the list should come with a “Not Safe For Viewing” warning or Rated R label. Indeed, the list has the ability to make you chuckle and recoil, sometimes all in one breath.
Most of the rejected vanity plates deal in obvious references to drugs and sex.
These can be relatively innocuous, such as REEFER and FL00ZIE. More explicit allusions cannot be printed.
Of course, there are a set of guidelines used by state officials to determine what is legit and what is banned.
For example, plates seen as offensive and disparaging to religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation are prohibited.
Other restrictions include attempts to impersonate elected officials or public safety officers (IMACOP); any curse words or slurs; any combination of numbers and letters that could be seen as a breach of copyright law (think UGADWGS, BRAVE5 or T0YZRUZ); and references to crime (REDRUM, BEATR).
In addition to the basic guidelines, state workers charged with the task of reviewing vanity plate requests will check UrbanDictionary.com and other Internet tools to decipher possible slang and code.
Car and Driver Magazine even prepared a list of mnemonic letter and number combinations for the uninitiated. For example, 2M8O is tomato, and BG8S is Bill Gates.
Of course, it would be impossible to track all the mischievous and creative ways people try to get around the guidelines and restrictions.
“Obviously, sometimes the letter and number combinations are difficult to decipher,” said Nick Genesi, director of communications for the Georgia Department of Revenue. “With the number of requests we have, it is a definite possibility that something will slip through the cracks.”
There is no breakdown of the reasons why certain plate requests are denied, but the difficulty in assessing what is OK and what isn’t has staff constantly on the lookout.
“It almost becomes a full-time job,” Genesi said. “People try a number of different letter and number combinations.”
Sometimes, people don’t even try to hide their mischief. The meaning and intent is clear when a curse word is spelled out correctly.
And sometimes it’s difficult to understand why certain plates were denied. For example, is OLDFART or SMRTAZZ really so objectionable? And what about WHATEVR? Sure, it’s dismissive, but isn’t that the American way?
The most requested vanity plates that are rejected are easy to spot on the list. They often come with numbers on the end, from 1 to 99, as each person tries to get a share of SEXY.
Then there are those requests that could be read several ways, the ones officials, perhaps, aren’t taking any chances on. BCHGRL comes to mind.
When plates are rejected, for whatever reason, individuals have 30 days to appeal to a three-person panel. That panel must vote unanimously to reject the plate. If just one person sides with the request, it is approved.
Genesi said no one has appealed since September, about the time the Department of Revenue began attaching dates to specific rejections.
In the end, the lesson is this: Georgia motorists like their vanity personalized.
Just remember to keep it clean. Someone’s watching out, after all.