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Nunavut's licence plate design was the same as that of the Northwest Territories from 1999 until this past July. The shape of the plate is now the traditional rectangle, although it still features a polar bear on it. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Nunavut's licence plate design was the same as that of the Northwest Territories from 1999 until this past July. The shape of the plate is now the traditional rectangle, although it still features a polar bear on it. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Drive, She Said

Licence plates, privacy and polar bears Add to ...

If you’ve been kicking around long enough, you’ll recall when you got new licence plates every year. Forget those little annoying stickers for the corner; from the year plates were first introduced in Ontario (1911), with the exception of a couple of years for the war effort, new plates were issued each year until the sticker solution took hold in 1973.

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It was easier, if more wasteful. We had the same plate forever (MFP 161) until it was joined by a second car (TMD 482). Like our home phone number, also long gone, I can still recite them.

The plates moved from car to car as we acquired new ones, unlike today where a metal alphabet soup is affixed to your newest addition as you hold your breath praying it doesn’t start with BBPB and sound like your plate is blowing a raspberry at you.

Of course, you can keep your present plates. It’s just difficult to attach something that might be rusty or bent to something shiny and new.

In love with your original tags? You can always order the same ones again – but the catch is that they will now be considered personalized licence plates, and cost you $215.65 rather than the $20 charge for next-in-line. Regardless, if I ever find myself in possession of an orange 1976 AMC Matador wagon, MFP 161 is going directly on it.

Section 13 of The Highway Traffic Act is clear on your responsibility as a driver for maintaining your plates: “Every number plate shall be kept free from dirt and obstruction.” This means you have to clear the snow and mud from it, as well as deal with rust or fading. But what about those plate covers that are sold everywhere? According to Ajay Woozageer at the Ministry of Transportation, it does “not endorse or promote the sale, purchase or use of licence plate covers.” There’s a good reason for it.

That’s because some of those covers act the same way privacy screens do on a computer, says Const. Clinton Stibbe with Toronto Traffic Services. Unless viewed directly head on, they obscure the plate number. For police, they are more concerned with intent and education than issuing you that $110 ticket.

“Technically, you can be ticketed for any obscurity on the plate. Only the two screws that hold it on are supposed to be there – technically,” says Stibbe.

What about dealer plate holders, or salt or rust corrosion?

“Again, we’re looking at intent. If a driver is pulled over and warned that something is making the plate unclear, they’ll be asked to correct it. If that same car is pulled over again two weeks later with the same problem, that’s when we’re going to ticket it.”

A bigger issue? A burned-out light over that rear plate. Rendering the tag invisible at night is a sure-fire way to draw attention. For an officer approaching a stopped or abandoned car, that licence plate is often the only input they have. For the rest of us, calling authorities about a dangerous situation means offering up all the info we can get – partial plates are useful if that’s all we can catch as a drunk flies by us, but if the plate is obscured, it’s that much harder.

Of course, there are those who make their money from clear plates: toll roads. Calls to the 407ETR weren’t returned; I just wanted to know what people have tried, and more importantly, what has worked, and what hasn’t worked.

I’ve been charged when I haven’t been on that road; if they can create my tag number out of thin air, I’m curious how they hunt down those actual – if obscured – users.

I’ve heard of people covering their rear plate with decorative spray-on snow (it slides off), or hanging a load off the back. Actually, I've heard some pretty intricate methods where I come away thinking it would be cheaper to just pay the toll than to spend so much time trying to circumvent it.

From the inadvertent obscuring to the purposeful: many publications have long blurred out licence plate numbers. If you publish a photo of your vehicle on the web, should you obstruct the plate? How much information can someone really get from it? A lot, actually, says Woozageer. If you request an abstract using the plate number, the following information is available:

Owner’s name as of the date specified in the request;

Plate renewal date and renewal information;

Vehicle specific information;

Vehicle owner history;

Owner’s information (Note: publicly available information does not include any personal information, such as a vehicle owner’s home address or phone number).

In this day and age, take that last reassurance with a grain of salt. I also wonder what the implications might be with people posting video from their dash cams, a fast-growing trend.

Ontario may be mine to discover, but Canada’s best licence plates? The Northwest Territorities, with its distinctive polar-bear-shaped tags. Possibly the only time it would be cool to have a polar bear on your tail.


Clarification: Due to an editing error, an earlier online version of this story contained incorrect information regarding polar-bear licence plates.

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