November 2014

Jurisdictions help organizations through the sales of specialty license plates.


Legally speaking, all vehicles in the United States and Canada must be registered with a motor vehicle agency in order to hit the road. As part of the registration process, each vehicle is given a license plate with a unique alphanumeric identifier that must be displayed on the vehicle. Drivers don’t have a choice—there’s no way around this license plate requirement.

However, in most jurisdictions, drivers do have a choice in what they want their license plate to look like. In addition to the general issue license plates offered by state and provincial motor vehicle agencies, specialty license plates are available for purchase. While some jurisdictions have hundreds of choices, others offer just a few different plate designs.

Not to be confused with vanity license plates that feature a personalized alphanumeric configuration on the standard plate design, specialty license plates have unique designs that generally include an organization’s logo, memoriam and/or a slogan. Common specialty plates include designs in support of sports teams, colleges, environmental causes, military, police and fire, and health and wellness causes.

Additionally, some jurisdictions allow the personalization of the alphanumeric characters on specialty plates in place of using the typical, random configuration of characters—like on a vanity plate.

Spreading awareness, raising revenue

“Specialty plates are a great way for organizations to promote their causes and put their slogans out there,” says Casey Garber, manager of vehicle programs at AAMVA. “A specialty plate is a billboard on a moving vehicle, an advertisement for the sponsoring organization. It helps bring awareness to the cause.”

Usually, there is a fee associated with the specialty license plate that goes to the sponsoring organization. So in addition to raising awareness, specialty plates “might be one of the biggest fundraising activities that an organization has,” Garber says.

Garry Hinkley, director of the vehicle services division at the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, agrees. “The primary benefit of offering specialty license plates is being able to raise revenue for the organizations that the plates support, along with raising awareness of the issues and the public profiles of these causes,” he says.

On the flipside, jurisdictions also are able to benefit from the sale of specialty plates. “In some jurisdictions, specialty license plates provide revenue because the administering agency also collects a fee for the specialty plate,” says Garber.

Take Maine, for example. The fee for a specialty license plate is $20 more than a general issue plate. Half of that fee goes to the sponsoring organization, and the other $10 goes directly into the state’s highway fund and gets appropriated to highway fund purposes. Specialty plate renewal fees are $15 extra, with $10 going to the organization and $5 going to the highway fund.

Getting the go-ahead

Jurisdictions each have a specific process spelled out in law that details the steps required for the creation of a specialty license plate. Interested organizations must follow the proper steps in order to obtain approval to create and sell their plate.

Hinkley says many groups in Maine inquire about starting the process, but not all are able to obtain enough support to produce a specialty plate. After a design is approved, an organization must have 2,000 presales of the plate over a two-year period. Many aren’t able to meet this goal, he says.

Currently, Maine has nine specialty plates in production. The different plates support: agriculture, animal welfare, University of Maine, breast cancer awareness, conservation, lobster research, sportsman, the troops and University of Maine scholarship. Based on legislation enacted in 2007, these plates will automatically be retired in 10 years unless they are able to get the required backing to extend their issuance.

In contrast, there are 122 specialty license plates that Floridians can purchase, with eight others pending. Requirements for the production of specialty license plates in Florida are different than Maine: Once the Florida legislature approves a plate, 1,000 presales must be sold within a two-year period in order to begin production.