Why Does Alabama Replace License Plates Every Five Years?

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If you’re like most Alabama residents, you received a new license plate in the mail this year. There was actually nothing wrong with your old one. Still, every five years, the state sends replacement plates for the majority of registered vehicles in the state. But have you ever stopped to think why? It costs the state millions of dollars and some are asking questions. WBHM’s Sarah Delia has this report.

By now most Alabamians have received their new license plate and registration.

It’s late fall and WBHM’s Andrew Yeager has just a couple of days to put his car’s new plate on. Within a few minutes and several swift turns of a screwdriver, the old plate is swapped out.

“Maybe the reason they make you change your plate every five years is so your screws don’t rust,” says Yeager.

The real reason Alabama changes plates every five years depends on who you ask.

There’s actually a state law that says “all motor vehicle license plate designs shall be valid for not less than five years.” So, officials take that to mean plates should be replaced every five years, even though there’s no requirement.

Brenda Coone is the Director of the Motor Vehicle Division at the Alabama Department of Revenue. She says drivers need new plates as a matter of public safety.

“We want to make sure every license plate we put out there is reflective and is highly visible during daytime and nighttime,” says Coone. “Our primary concern is to ensure every license plate we put out there can be read by law.”

But the Birmingham Police Department says it’s not the new plates that stand out to officers as the small decals that change every year. That’s what they look for when they pull people over.

The agency that makes every license plate in the state is called A.C.I. or Alabama Correctional Industries. It’s a division of the Department of Corrections. Andy Farquhar is the director of A.C.I. He says his department just does what it’s told.

“I know of states that have not done a reissue in 40 years,” he says. “It’s not our call. It’s Revenue’s call as to how long plates last.”

The state contracts with 3M, which makes the reflective sheeting on plates.

3M declined to be interviewed for this story. But the company emailed a statement that said “reflective sheeting can lose its brightness after five years.” But it’s up to states to decide how often plates should be replaced.

California uses that exact same 3M technology for its license plates. But unlike Alabama, officials there have no concern about a loss of reflectivity. In California the license plate that’s issued with the car is almost never replaced. You’ll see plates that are decades old and look just fine.

“It’s not a huge problem,” says Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. “We rarely run into the case where you’re like ‘alright my plate is worn out, I gotta get a new one.’ It’s not a huge issue.”

Well if it’s not a huge issue, then what’s going on in Alabama?

Alabama State Senator Cam Ward says, “Well if California can do it, I’m not sure why we can’t do it as well.” Ward says he’s not really sure why Alabama reissues license plates every five years. Ward says it’s an issue worth looking into.

“It would seem to save the state money,” Ward said.

It probably would. The state spends $15 million every year on license plates. That includes $4 million for manufacturing, transportation and postage.

There’s actually a state panel called the License Plates Legislative Oversight Committee which helps decide when plates in Alabama should be reissued. State Senator Gerald Dial is the chairman.

He defends Alabama’s policy because he says when drivers replace plates, it ensures they’re properly registered and says new plates help law enforcement too.

But asked if Alabama would save money by printing plates less frequently, Dial responds “Possibly…yes.”

Georgia used to replace plates every few years like Alabama. But that changed during the recession last decade. When Georgia was looking for ways to cut costs, it followed the California model: it decided to allow drivers to keep their plates as long as they have their cars. The Georgia Department of Revenue says it saves the state millions of dollars every year.