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Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

My wife’s licence plates were starting to deteriorate several years back, so I put covers on them. Last week, I was driving it and I got pulled over. The police officer told me my licence plate was obstructed and gave me a ticket without asking questions. I cannot find anything in the law saying you can’t have covers. The plates are still very visible. The only obstruction I can think of is from the cheap quality of the plates. – Enzo, Toronto

The law is clear, sort of – licence plate covers aren’t illegal, but you could still get a ticket if you have one.

In Ontario, Section 13.2 of the Highway Traffic Act states, ”every number plate shall be kept free from dirt and obstruction and shall be affixed so that the entire number plate, including the numbers, is plainly visible at all times, and the view of the number plate shall not be obscured or obstructed by spare tires, bumper bars, any part of the vehicle, any attachments to the vehicle or the load carried.”

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Who decides whether plates are visible?

“As with all laws, it is up to law enforcement officers to exercise their judgment and apply the HTA,” Courtney Anderson, Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

So, if a police officer decides that your numbers can’t be seen by other vehicles, for any reason, you could get an $85 ticket, Anderson said.

“This could occur where a licence-plate cover obstructs the licence plate by reflecting headlights, or where a licence plate or plate cover is dirty, damaged, or discoloured and the licence plate is not clearly visible,” Anderson said.

So the law covers plate covers and peeling plates, even though they’re not specifically mentioned in the law.

The law also bans any device that prevents “an automated speed enforcement system,” a red-light camera or an “electronic-toll system” from seeing your licence-plate number.

Legal to buy

We asked the MTO if it advises people not to use plate covers.

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“The sale of licence-plate covers is not illegal,” Anderson said. “The ministry is aware that many retailers sell these items, however, the ministry does not endorse or promote the sale, purchase, or use of clear or tinted licence-plate covers.”

We asked how many people were charged for this and hadn’t received a response by our deadline.

The laws are similar in other provinces. In British Columbia, for instance, having an illegible plate is a $230 ticket under section 3.03 of the Motor Vehicle Act.

As for peeling plates, it’s up to you to go to ServiceOntario and get them replaced, said Harry Malhi, spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, in an e-mail.

Replacing a plate costs $59. Generally, they’re only replaced for free for five years, although there are exceptions for plates bought after June of 2008.

Last year, 145,000 licence plates were returned, Malhi said. Plates have also peeled in Nova Scotia, B.C., Illinois, New York and the British Virgin Islands, the government says. So, why did the plates peel in the first place?

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It’s not entirely clear.

“The manufacturer and material suppliers of both the reflective laminate sheeting and strip aluminum have conducted independent investigations, and two third-party investigations were conducted by external consultants,” Malhi said. “While reports did not identify a root cause, they determined that environmental factors may be affecting the plates.”

Ontario is coming out with new plates next year with laminate that will be “stronger, brighter and longer lasting than any other licence-plate technology,” Malhi said.

If you already have plates and want to get what’s promised to be a super-plate, it will cost $59.

“If Ontarians choose to voluntarily get the new plate, they will have to pay,” Malhi said.

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up for the weekly Drive newsletter, delivered to your inbox for free. Follow us on Instagram, @globedrive.

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