Governing Laws for Number Plates

Laws governing number plates in the UK have changed repeatedly over the last century. This is mostly to stop criminals getting away through the use of fake or stolen number plates, and to adapt to the increasing number of cars in use.

Beginning in 1903, registration numbers were based on location. The initial plates followed the style “A 1” through to “YY 9999”, but numbers began to run out as the popularity of cars increased, so in 1932 a different scheme was introduced, though it was still based on location.

The 1932 plates went with the format “AAA 1” to “YYY 999”, minus the letters I, Q and Z. There were also some three letter combinations that weren’t issued: Great Yarmouth, for instance, used “EX” as the last two letters on their license plates, but were never allowed to use “SEX”, resulting in numerous headlines proclaiming “No Sex for Great Yarmouth Motorists.”

In 1963, when numbers were once again running out, an additional letter was added on to the end of plates all around the country, corresponding to the year the car was registered. The next change came in 1973, but it was a style change rather than a format change.

Previously, number plates were either white on black or silver on black, and were made from pressed metal or plastic characters attached to the metal plate. There weren’t laws governing the size, font or gap between characters, all of which came about in January 1973. From this point on, characters had to be 89mm by 64mm or 79 by 57mm. The gaps between characters were also standardised, and had to be 13mm with the larger characters and 11mm with the smaller. It was also at this point where regulation banning stylised characters in number plates came in.

The next change was once again to the format, rather than the aesthetics, and saw the letter that identified the year being moved from the ultimate position to the primary. This remained until 2001, at which point the current style of number plates were introduced.

After September 2001, the format changed to a two-letter area code, followed by a two-number year code, followed by three random letters. Part of the idea behind this was that the first four characters were easy to remember and would allow police to drastically reduce the number of potential vehicles involved in a crime if witnesses could remember just the first four digits, or even just the first two. It also meant that second-hand buyers could have some clue as to the age of the car, and solved the problem of numbers running out until 2051.

To ensure that all format and style regulations are observed, every supplier of number plates has to be registered with the DVLA, and the name and postcode of the supplier is displayed on every license plate they make. People buying plates must also supply proof of identity, as well as the documentation to show the number plate is theirs. Suppliers must also keep records of all of the above information and make those records available to the police is asked to.

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