Geographically Coded Plates

On September 9, 2015 · 11 Comments

Nearby I spotted an automobile with a Nebraska license plate, or more properly a "vehicle registration plate" I supposed. That wasn’t an everyday occurrence here in the Mid-Atlantic more than 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometres) from that Midwestern state. Often I’ve wondered what would bring a driver such a long distance from his home after I’ve spotted such an unusual plate. In the Washington, DC area it was generally someone serving in the military at one of the many local bases, although now I’ve started going down a tangent. Back to the point, it reminded me of one particularly fascinating feature of Nebraska’s plates, that they traditionally contained not-so-secret geographic codes within the identification scheme. That beautiful pattern began to break down in recent years and I’ll get to that in a moment.

NEBRASKA 1954 and 1965 ---TRAILER LICENSE plates
NEBRASKA 1954 and 1965 —TRAILER LICENSE plates by Jerry “Woody” on Flickr (cc)

One could, and to a degree can determine the county where the driver lived when the vehicle was first registered. The state began issuing county-coded plates in 1922 and fixed its pattern on the current population. All plates issued within the most populous county began with with the number 1 and so on down to the 93rd county. The current enumeration at that time was the 1920 Census so Douglas County grabbed number 1 with with 204,524 residents. That made sense. The city of Omaha fell within Douglas County and it had a lot of people. Number 2 went to Lancaster County with 85,902 residents. Again, that made sense. Lancaster contained Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, and naturally it had a lot of people too. The pattern continued all the way down to remote Hooker County with a mere 1,378 residents in 1920, designated thereafter with the number 93. Interestingly enough, that was the largest population Hooker County ever had; there were only 736 people living there in 2010.

Thus, in the image of the vintage Nebraska license plates displayed above, one could surmise that the top plate would have been registered to a vehicle in Douglas County (1) and the lower plate would have come from Keith County (68) towards the western side of the state.

Omaha by Pat Hawks on Flickr (cc)

I’ve never lived in Nebraska although I spent significant time there for maybe a five year period ending about a dozen years ago. I got pretty good at memorizing the license plate codes for counties surrounding Omaha because I’d see them fairly regularly. That’s why I was sad to hear about changes to the system as I researched this article. The system was already starting to break down because of specialty plates (a new one was announced just a few days ago to mark the state’s sesquicentennial) and personalized plates. However I’d stumbled upon a more direct assault, Nebraska Revised Statute 60-370.

I guess one could blame Nebraska’s growing popularity, particularly along the expanding edges of Omaha and Lincoln. Reserving the first digit for a 1 or a 2 would limited the number of unique combinations available on the rest of the plate. Plus there was Sarpy County to further complicate the situation. It’s diminutive 1920’s population earned Sarpy a lowly 59 on the list. It’s become a booming Omaha suburb in recent decades, growing at a 20% pace, with nearly a hundred and sixty thousand residents by 2010. Sarpy more than anything else blew the entire basis of the old code to pieces. The third most populated county in the state still had code 59.

The statute was revised to read:

… registration of motor vehicles or trailers in counties having a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants or more according to the most recent federal decennial census shall be by an alphanumeric system rather than by the county number system.

Certainly, the vast preponderance of Nebraska counties by number retained their geographic codes. However the set of counties with the biggest chunks of people switched to boring three-letter / three-number patterns found just about everywhere else. I took a quick look at Nebraska counties with "a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants or more" (i.e., Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy) and compared them against the state as a whole. Those three counties alone accounted for an astounding 54% of Nebraska residents. The remaining 46% were spread amongst the other 90 counties!

I also learned that several other states had license plate coding schemes that identified counties to one degree or another. Wikipedia had the details although not contained on a single page. I’ve done the hard work so readers won’t have to hunt for the information themselves.

Geographic codes may be more common outside of the United States. I know that one could tell the home registration of vehicles in Ireland by an alphabetic code as I’d observed when I was over there last summer. For example, one could easily identify most of the tourists in Killarney because their automobiles had a "D" in the middle position of the plate. That meant the vehicle came from Dublin and was likely picked-up as a rental car when the visitor landed at Dublin Airport. It also meant that it might be an American not used to driving on the left side of the road. Proceed with caution!

On September 9, 2015 · 11 Comments

11 Responses to “Geographically Coded Plates”

  1. Philip Newton says:

    Geographic codes (by district or large city – roughly equivalent to counties) on licence number plates are how it’s done in Germany – and if you move to a different district, you have to get a new plate with the new prefix.

    Very generally speaking, the most populous cities have one-letter prefixes, then two-letter and three-letter prefixes are for the other cities and districts.

    There are a few exceptions, such as Hamburg (the second-biggest city in the country) having the two-letter combination HH because they (together with a handful of other cities: Bremen, HB; Lubeck, HL; Greifswald, HGW; Rostock, HRO) want to proclaim their status as a former member of the Hanseatic League. The single H then went to Hanover.

    The alphabetical codes are reasonably mnemonic, at least once you know the name of the district a given city is in.

    What you can’t do is determine when a vehicle was first registered, which is how the UK does it – formerly through a letter at the beginning or end of the code indicating the year, now through a two-digit combination that indicates a half-year depending on whether 50 is added or not (03 = first half of 2003, 53 = second half of 2003). The vehicle registration years do not quite align with the calendar year, however – people in November and December were putting off new car purchases till the new year in order to get a newer registration and car sales were suffering.

  2. Randy says:

    Cass County Indiana used to have SS or ST as an identifier. Later the number 9 (9th alphabetically).

  3. Glenn says:

    Kansas used to have 2-letter county abbreviations on license plates.

    • Mr Burns says:

      Yes we did, and in a way, we still do. Originally we had numbers like Nebraska, based on county population. Then they came up with a two-letter code for each of the 105 counties. The letters were one above the other on the left side of the plate. It could come in handy. Visiting another part of the state, if one committed a minor traffic offense, law enforcement could often be talked out of a ticket because “we’re from out of town.”

      When the counties got so populated that there wasn’t enough room for all the numbers, a new system began. Still the two letters down the left side, then a larger single letter, then sequential digits. There were only twelve single letters used, one for each month of the year. Since your registration is due in a particular month based on your last name, the letters loosely corresponded to last names. For example, If the plate had an “S”, the owner’s name started with “S” and was renewed in October. If it had an “M”, the owner’s name started with “M”, “N”, or “O”, and renewed in August.

      We switched to the 3-letter, 3-number system some years back. But people complained that they couldn’t tell what county a car was registered in. So the powers-that-be decided to put a little sticker in the upper left corner of the plate with the old two-letter county codes.

      After some time of the new system, some (including law enforcement) complained that the little stickers were too hard to see. So, we all got bigger stickers in the mail. Some clever people in Shawnee County (Topeka) realized that if they put the new sticker on upside-down, the “SN” became “NS” and they appeared to be from Ness County (much less populated west-central Kansas). Then they could sometimes use the “we’re from out of town” excuse. Until the cop asked for registration papers and drivers licenses, of course.

      Nowadays, the county letters are printed directly on the plates. Unlike some states, we get new plates every five years, and if you move to a different county or change your last name, you get a new plate. So the county designation is not where the car was first registered, but where it is currently registered. Also, we ran out of 3-letter/3-number combinations, so now we’re in 3-number/3-letter sets.

      Kansas also experimented at one time with front license plates. We found little benefit and a lot of extra expense, so it was dropped in short order. It used to be that if you get a vanity plate you got have another one for the front, but I’m not sure about that anymore.

  4. Matt says:

    Up until 2007 Indiana used a system where the first digit/two digits represented the county alphabetically. Cass County had a 9 as Randy said. There are 92 counties so 1-92 were reserved for those counties. The next item was a letter, then a numeral of 1-4 digits followed.

    So, the first plate issued in Adams County would have read 1 A 1. After gettting to 1 A 9999, the next Adams County plate would’ve been 1 B 1.

    Most counties reserved certain letters for certain groups… 16 D 1 would’ve been the chairman of the Decatur County Democrat party, for instance, and others wishing for this designation could also have 16 D plates.

    Marion County (Indianapolis) was 49, but needed many more numbers than this system allowed. 49 (A-Z) 9999. So Marion County also got 93, 95, 97, 98 and 99 (if I recall correctly). Other large counties got 94 and 96.

    Allen County (Fort Wayne) was 2, and eventually exhausted its supply but all those 93-99 prefixes were taken so they had to go to two letters. 2 AA 9999, etc.

    After 2007 we now have the standard boring three letters/three numbers. Liked it better the old way but the concerns were similar to what you described with Nebraska.

    There are people that feel strongly enough about the old system that they now pay for vanity plates that follow this naming convention. Democrats/Republicans in particular might be seen with a plate with their county prefix and the D or R.

  5. Fritz Keppler says:

    Mississippi many years ago had a system like Indiana’s, not sure when they ditched it to go with 3 letters and 3 numbers.

  6. Mr Burns says:

    Iowa prints the county name, spelled out, along the bottom of their plates.

  7. David Manuel says:

    Louisiana had a regional system starting in 1964, after exhausting the range of six-digit numbers. The plates had up to six digits, with a single central letter that corresponded to the State Police district. Baton Rouge had A as the state capitol, New Orleans B, and so on through L (Hammond/Covington). N and X were added later to supplement New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

    Around 1993 or so, the plates changed to three letters and three numbers like most states. The State Police still are organized the same way; the letters just aren’t used on vehicle plates anymore. Trucks, trailers, and I think rental cars still have a single letter in front of a six-digit number, rather than the standard system, but it’s not the police troop, just a category code.

  8. Jimmy Emerson says:

    Alabama’s plates are only listed by population for the 1st 3. Plate #1, #2, #3 are Jefferson (Birmingham); Mobile, Montgomery. Starting with plate #4 (Autagua)–they are listed alphabetically.

    GA, MS, TN, KY, IA all list the county name on the “core” plate.

  9. Kevin K says:

    Wyoming’s are divided by county, however the population distribution has changed. For example, Cheyenne (Laramie County; 2 on license plates) having surpassed Casper (Natrona County; 1 on license plates) as the most populous county. I’m not aware of any plans to change the plates to reflect this. If they do, my old man would have to learn all his counties over again!

  10. Greg says:

    I’ve noticed that the significant majority of cars here in Cuyahoga County OH have plates beginning with E, F, or G. I’ve never seen a public list of plate prefixes by county, but it appears that’s the system in play.

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