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Who taught YOU to drive?

Taking license with temporary plates: How far is too far?

Massachusetts drivers have been making homemade plates for a century, such as this leather one, in the Larz Anderson Auto Museum’s collection. Massachusetts drivers have been making homemade plates for a century, such as this leather one, in the Larz Anderson Auto Museum’s collection.
By Peter DeMarco
November 22, 2009

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Sitting in traffic the other day, I couldn’t help notice the license plate in front of me: a scrap of cardboard with numbers and letters scribbled in black marker. It was propped up inside the rear window so it wouldn’t fall off the car, which, I imagined, was the fate that befell the real plate.

The image reminded me of a conversation I had a few months ago with Stewart Berg, a volunteer historian with the Registry of Motor Vehicles who has collected more than 100,000 old license plates. They’re his thing. Berg told me that when Massachusetts created license plates back in 1903, drivers had the option of either buying a plate from the state for $2 or making one of their own.

Or, if you were really cheap, you could paint your number on the back of the vehicle. In the infant days of driving, that’s all that was required.

“In 1909, with motorcycles, they did not issue plates, so you had to paint your registration number onto the bike,’’ Berg said. “I actually have an official 1909 bike fender and the registration painted onto it. I can dig it out for you if you like.’’

I passed on Berg’s offer the day we spoke, but the cardboard plate got me wondering whether our current laws pay homage to those early days of homemade plates.

Is a piece of paper or cardboard a legal substitute for a license plate? Can you stick a license plate, be it homemade or an official one, anywhere on the back of your car? Or - and I’m not sure why anyone would to do this now - could you really just paint your registration number on your fender?

The law says
I posed my questions to Registry spokeswoman Ann Dufresne, who e-mailed a list of answers.

As for painting plate numbers on your car, Dufresne wrote, “I am not certain of the laws in the early 1900s. You can not do this now.’’ Well, that’s no surprise.

But what about a homemade license plate?

Dufresne said that if your plate is “lost or mutilated or if the register number thereon becomes illegible,’’ you need to apply immediately for a new plate. But that will typically take four to six weeks to arrive in the mail. In the interim, you are supposed to create your own temporary plate.

A temporary plate needs to be displayed on your car in the same location as your real plate would. That means you have to position it in the middle of your front or rear bumpers, and the rear plate must be illuminated. Putting a temporary plate anywhere else, such as inside the rear window, isn’t legal, Dufresne wrote.

“The driver could be cited for improper display of plate,’’ she wrote.

Also, your temporary plate isn’t legal just by itself.

If an officer stops you, you need to produce a permit from the Registry that verifies that your real plates are coming in the mail.

What are the RMV’s guidelines for making a temporary plate, I asked? Do numbers and letters have to be a certain color, size, and height? Can a person’s temporary plate be stylish, or even artistic, so long as numbers and characters are clearly legible? Can it be made of cardboard, wood, or any other material you’ve got handy?

Dufresne pointed to the lone section of Massachusetts General Laws regarding temporary plates, Chapter 90, Section 6, which leaves the creation of any temporary plate almost entirely in the driver’s hands.

“The legislation says approximate a standard plate as best as you can,’’ Dufresne wrote. “There are no specific requirements for size, shape. It just needs to be legible from 60 feet away like a real plate. The hope is that one would use common sense.’’

I reminded her that Massachusetts drivers aren’t always known for that. But when I think about it, the temporary plates I’ve encountered have all been simple, plain, and legible, so I guess the system works.

Is our homemade license plate law a holdover from those olden days of driving, when simple solutions were often the best? Alas, Dufresne couldn’t say. But I’d like to think so.

Somerville resident Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. He also updates a Facebook page, “WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’