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The lowdown on license plates

Massachusetts issues about 1 million new license plates a year, all manufactured at a single location: MCI-Cedar Junction, the state's maximum-security prison in Walpole.

Yes, convicts make license plates, by hand, even in 2007. Just like in the movies.

I might not have believed it had Anne Collins, director of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, not told me when I met her at her agency's annual "low-number plate" lottery this month.

"I have actually been with the murderers," she said, describing her trip to see vehicle registration plates being made.

"It's a very cool thing to see . . . they have these old tool-and-die presses and they have dies that are cut in every number and letter. One guy reads the list . . . and the guy who puts them in lowers the press."

Prisoners, in fact, have been making our license plates since 1920. What else is there to know about license plates? Well, plenty.

Red vs. Green

One license plate was once all you ever needed. But in the 1980s, at the request of law enforcement officials, the law was changed to require a second plate on the front of vehicles, said Charles LaRocca, director of registrations and titles for the Registry. With two plates, vehicles became twice as easy to identify.

License plates issued before the law was changed were exempt. So anyone holding an old license plate with green letters and numbers continued to need just one. Anyone holding a new license plate with red characters needed two. It's been so ever since.

Whenever a green plate is given up - or becomes so faded it's no longer readable - it is retired, leaving fewer in circulation each year.

According to the Registry, approximately 4.8 million red plates are in circulation. Just 636,000 green plates are hanging on.

Vanity fair

For a $50 fee you can request combinations of up to six letters or numbers when applying for a vanity plate. But the Registry's approval is far from automatic.

First, your plate can't duplicate any of the more than 66,600 vanity plates in circulation. (MYBABY, NOTHIS, and FATBOY are already taken, if you were wondering.)

Your plate also can't be offensive, profane, or dirty. LaRocca and his staff have seen just about everything, he says.

"Sometimes you have to go out there and Google it, or see if there's anything in slang dictionaries to see what the meanings are," he said. "Any time we find anything we think is offensive, we'll program it into the computer system, which then doesn't allow these plates to be ordered."

To test the system, plug any combination into the Registry's website databank.

Numbers game

Governor Deval Patrick may be our first citizen, but his license plate doesn't read "1." "He has a regular plate just like everyone else," said Collins.

Low-numbered plates are a treasured commodity, so much so that once people get them, they rarely give them up. Massachusetts issued its first license plate, the number "1," in 1903 to a man named Frederick Tudor.

His family still holds the plate, Collins says.

For more than 90 years, you usually had to know someone in high standing to get a low-numbered plate when one became available, according to Registry officials.

To eliminate favoritism, a law was enacted in 1997 creating a lottery system for awarding low-numbered plates, defined as any plate with four or fewer characters, as they are returned to the Registry.

About 4,000 people entered this year's drawing, which featured one of the neatest license plate numbers around, the uber-patriotic "1776." Richard Uvanitte, an East Wareham pickup-truck driver, was the recipient.

Classic tastes

The Registry issues more than 200 types of license plates - including commercial plates, veterans plates, and special interest plates with images of whales or the Bruins logo on them.

There's yet another category for antique cars, known as "year of manufacture" plates.

License plates manufactured through 1978 had the year they were issued printed on them.

Owners of antique cars who wish to have year-appropriate license plates on their cars (a 1931 plate on a 1931 Model A, for example) are allowed to use previously issued plates - found in old barns, at junkyards, or at flea markets - on their vehicle, as long as no one else has registered the same plate number on their classic car.

Law and order

If your plates aren't legible or visible (i.e. covered with snow or mud), are covered by glass or plastic, or aren't lighted, you could be fined $35.

Driving without plates is punishable with a fine of $100 for the first offense and up to $1,000 for subsequent offenses. The same penalties apply for attaching a plate to the wrong car.

Illegal use of a handicapped-access license plate carries a $500 fine and a 30-day license suspension for the first offense.

The second offense carries a $1,000 fine and a 90-day suspension. A third offense will cost you $1,000 and a yearlong suspension.

What drives you crazy about local drivers? Is there a traffic rule you've always wondered about, or a pet peeve that never fails to annoy you? Send us a message about it at ciweek@globe.com. We'll check it out.

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What drives you crazy about local drivers? Is there a traffic rule you've always wondered about, or a pet peeve that never fails to annoy you? Send us a message about it at ciweek@globe.com. We'll check it out.

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