Say goodbye to a tradition that began in 1958 — Washington state auto-license plates with three numbers and three letters. Sometime in the summer...

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Say goodbye to a tradition that began in 1958 — Washington state auto-license plates with three numbers and three letters.

Sometime in the summer of 2009, the inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where the plates have been manufactured since 1923, will be making plates with seven characters.

Right now, they’re making plates in which the letter series begins with W. After that, just X, Y and Z will be left; as of a few days ago, that meant only 2.3 million six-character combinations were still available.

The Department of Licensing (DOL) figures it’ll run out in July 2009.

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The agency is navigating tricky waters as it approaches a new number-and-letter system.

With 4.1 million passenger cars licensed here, there is no room for glitches, including innocently offending somebody with the hidden meaning of some letter combinations.

“It’s not something you think about on Monday, and then do it on Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon,” said Glenn Ball, administrator of title and registration services for the state.

Replacing plates

The state issues some 860,000 sets of license plates each year. That’s not an exact figure because of fluctuations in demand.

By law, license plates must be replaced every seven years because the reflective coating on them breaks down, making it hard for police to see them in bad weather.

Reusing already issued numbers is not a good idea, according to the DOL. Those plates would have to be custom-manufactured and mailed out, instead of having plates randomly assigned to licensing agencies.

But if you really want to retain your old number, the state will oblige and charge $20 for the service. Only 55,000 people have chosen to do that in the past seven years.

No ZOO for you

Also limiting the number of plates churned out is that some letter combinations are banned.

Tom Richardson, DOL license-plate supply officer, has a folder containing eight pages listing 2,432 “objectionable three-letter plate combinations.”

These combinations are different from the vanity plates in which some drivers try to sneak dirty words and other offensive terms past the agency.

These are letter combinations put together more than 15 years ago by licensing departments from this state, California and New Jersey.

The list was made so long ago that the DOL doesn’t know what criteria were used to determine what was objectionable.

It includes not only the usual sophomoric combinations beginning with “F” but also such combinations as: APE, BRA, BUT, CAT, DOG, DDT, KID, MOM, MUD, PET, RAT, RYE, TUB, TWO, WIG, YES and ZOO.

Even GOP and DEM are considered potentially objectionable, presumably because of their political connotations.

Further, letter combinations don’t start with I, O or Q to avoid confusion with the numbers 1 and 0, a problem in a high-speed chase.

All of which means there are thousands of plate configurations that can’t be manufactured.

“I don’t understand why some of them are objectionable, but they’re on the list,” Richardson said. “It’s just three letters, and it means different things to different people.”

On his own, Richardson has taken 16 combinations off the objectionable list, such as APA, BAK, AUE, BUG, CHP, EAK, EEK, EEW, END, FAN, FUN and GPU, when he couldn’t figure out what could be so offensive about them.

But he has added at least one new term, HOE, after getting complaints from residents on this side of the Cascades. There were no complaints from Eastern Washington. “To them, it’s a farm implement,” Richardson said.

He said he’s also gotten calls from the penitentiary, where inmates told corrections officers that particular three-letter combinations were gang terms. Richardson said he went ahead and had them produced, since no one else had heard of the terms.

The agency also is making sure any new configuration is approved by the State Patrol and other police agencies.

Leather plates?

The exact format of the new seven-character configuration will be decided in the next year, said Gigi Zenk, spokeswoman for the DOL.

“Maybe it’ll be a letter, several numbers, then a letter,” she said.

Or maybe some other seven-character configuration.

The new plates will be just another milestone in the agency’s history, one that reflects how the region has changed over the decades.

The first vehicle license in this state — plate B-1 — was issued May 2, 1905, to a man named S.A. Perkins of Tacoma who had a 30-horsepower Pope-Toledo touring car. A total of 763 license numbers were issued that year.

Back then, the state simply issued a number for $2 and the car owner made his own plate, often out of leather, sometimes out of metal or wood. Sometime the license was stenciled by the owner on the rear window.

“Times have really changed,” Richardson said. “Now on a passenger plate you can have a specialty plate, a collegiate plate like for the UW or WSU, or a wildlife plate like with a bear, an eagle, an elk. It’s a lot more complicated these days. And back then, that little piece of leather didn’t cost that much, either.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or

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