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Sept. 2001-Oct. 2002 Changes to D.C. Auto Plates

The introduction of new manufacturing technologies and processes is often followed by an trial-and-error period during which changes are made to resultant goods as the new methods and their output are tested and used. This period in the product life cycle, often interesting in retrospect owing to its uncertainty, applies even to low-tech goods such as license plates, and this is exactly what occurred with Washington, D.C. plates during a thirteen-month period that began in September 2001. The occurrence of only one of the changes that took place during this period would not have attracted much notice here or elsewhere, but that so many plate characteristics were changed within such a relatively short period and in a jurisdiction in which not many plates are made and issued (at least compared to the states) has resulted in a stream of events that warrants close attention. That this period be studied now, while the plates are still in use and in relative abundance in hobbyist circles, is imperative if an understanding of what occurred is ever to be gained.

Although our focus is the series of events that began in late 2001, two noteworthy alterations to Washington, D.C. plates that occurred previously, one in 1997 and the other in 2000, warrant discussion to set the stage. To address these changes is appropriate primarily because all of the 1997-2002 changes are usually considered simultaneously, and also because including them leaves us with a complete chronology of the evolution of D.C. plates since 1991.

April 1997: A New Numbering Configuration

By 2000, consistent could be the single word most often chosen to describe license plates generated in the nation's capital during the 35 years since plain, all-embossed black-on-white plates were introduced in the spring of 1966. As if to announce to the country that Washington was attempting to wrest from Connecticut its moniker as the Land of Steady Habits, when it was time for new plates for D.C. motorists two years later the design was again all-embossed and plain black on white, with only the position of the city's name and dour Nation's Capital slogan reversed to mark the change. It's true that in 1974 the '68 plate was followed by a more pleasing blue-on white design that includes narrow horizontal red rules and a small embossed motif of the U.S. Capitol dome, but staying true to its steady habits, that design has been changed little in its first 35 years.

Also noteworthy about plates introduced in early 1966 is that just when most states had completed their collective abandonment of all-number plates in favor of those with serials comprised of a mixture of letters and numbers, Washington, D.C. reintroduced this format after experimenting with a variety of confusing configurations in the mid-1960s aimed at limiting auto registration numbers to no more than five characters. Numbering on the 1966 plates began at 100-000 and reached 999-999 twenty years later (on a plate introduced in 1984), at which time the process began again, this time at 010-000. Numbers continued to be assigned sequentially, but in early 1997 the sequence was abruptly stopped in the midst of the eight hundred thousand series.

The 1997 change had to be made, of course. Numbers had eclipsed 850-000 by spring, and at the then present rate of issuance they would reach 925-001 in about a year, maybe 13 or 14 months. Numbers could not be issued above 925-000 without duplicating registrations still in use, having been issued on the 1984 (“A Capital City”) plate introduced late in that year. Give D.C. DMV officials credit for realizing that a change needed to be made. Some would have preferred a continuation of the all-number series coupled with a replacement of the 1984 plates, thereby making available half a million numbers (many of which were no longer in service) for reissuance. Probably without the necessary funding to accomplish a replacement of the 1984 plate, however, and faced with the need for a solution within a year, the easy fix was to leave 1984 plates on the roads and start a new sequence for new registrations.

Although why the April 1997 change was made exactly when it was is unknown, the issuance of all-number plates was halted at around registration no. 853-000. The new general-issue configuration, two letters followed by four numbers and commencing at AA-0000, occurred without fanfare. The position of the city name and Celebrate & Discover slogan was reversed simultaneously, but no other changes were made at the time or within the next two years, making this an example of one of those landmarks that's fairly easy to identify.

Nov. 2000: A New Slogan

2000 baseplates numbered BC-0288 and BE-5552Everything was going along rather nicely through the waning years of the twentieth century, with more than 200,000 sets of AB-1234-format plates (all of them beginning with the letter A, incidentally) emblazoned with Celebrate & Discover being distributed to D.C. motorists during all of 1998, 1999, and most of 2000. Behind the scenes, however, a move was afoot to have the slogan changed to TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION, an effort that began with a March 2000 telephone call to a local radio call-in show. Despite the political nature of the new slogan and the high-profile November 4 introduction of the plates, this was really just a slogan change – nothing else. That is, nothing else aside from a slightly noticeable alteration in the italic cursive font that had been used for the city name since 1984. These changes were effective with plate no. AZ-0000.

The font used for “Washington, D.C.” was changed back to its original (1984-2000) style five months later. The cutoff point for this modification still has to be narrowed; presently we know that plate BC-0288 was issued in March 2001 with the non-traditional font introduced at AZ-0000 whereas number BC-8197, assigned in April 2001, has the standard font. Also at this time the length of the plate-wide red rules was shortened slightly so that they no longer reached the edges of the plate.

To summarize:

Sept.-Nov. 2001: Changes Begin with Flat Plates

Introduction of BA-series registrations coincided closely with the change of the calendar to 2001. The BB series was skipped (because it was used for alternative-slogan, not general-issue plates), so the BA series was followed by BC in February or March, BD around the beginning of May, and BE from June through July. All of these embossed aluminum plates were made at the Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax, Va., a D.C. Dept. of Corrections facility where plates had been made for Washington motorists for decades. In anticipation of its closure by the end of 2001, however, the last orders for Lorton-made plates were accepted on June 30, 2001, meaning that the D.C. DMV had to find another source for its plates. That source turned out to be UNICOR (Federal Prison Industries), at which the production of flat plates made with Digital License Plate (DLP) technology was scheduled to (and presumably did) begin in mid-September 2001. This is how D.C. plates came to be flat.

2000 baseplates numbered BF-7834 and BG-7175The supply of embossed plates appears to have lasted through most of September. With one exception (flat BF-series plates are discussed separately here) the change from embossed to flat D.C. plates occurred in the early BG series. The highest embossed and lowest flat plates observed to date are BG-1886 and BG-2033, respectively, resulting in speculation that the change occurred at plate no. BG-2000. As for the timing of this change, flat plate BG-2626 was observed in use on Sept. 24, 2001. From the standpoint of physical characteristics, flat plates are slightly smaller then their embossed predecessors, and they are not completely flat: there is a debossed rim to aid in rigidity. Furthermore, the size and precise location of certain features varies between the flat and embossed varieties.

A change made on the flat plates that would have been unanticipated by anyone aware of their upcoming introduction is that specified locations of the month and year stickers were reversed. Whether the new locations of the “YEAR” and “MONTH” sticker placement markers printed in the upper corners of each plate was deliberate or an error is unknown. It wound up not mattering very much, however, for by spring 2001 the days of plate expiration stickers were numbered.

Another unanticipated change implemented with flat plates is a redesigned security mark embedded in the reflective sheeting. Whereas the mark on embossed plates features the initial letters DC followed by a four-character production month code, those of flat plates are a circular federal government seal similar to that which appears on the right side of the reverse of a $1 bill.

2000 baseplates numbered BG-7175 and BG-7529The first flat plates, those of a portion of the G series, have the registration number and other blue features printed in a shade of blue darker than the ink used on embossed areas and blue graphics of earlier plates. Officials apparently noticed the difference and preferred the lighter, more traditional hue, for it was back before long. This color adjustment is a good example of the type of alteration that is often made during early stages in the life cycle of products made using new methods and technologies, and in the case of collectible goods it results in a scarce (but not necessarily more valuable) variety produced for only a short period. The highest-numbered observed plate with dark blue lettering is BG-7175, and the lowest with the lighter blue is BG-7529.

To summarize:

April-May 2002: Method of Registration Validation is Changed

Through the end of 2001 and into 2002 the new flat plates were issued. Numbers in the transitional BG series lasted through late November or early December, after which plates of the BH series were distributed through most of January 2002. The BI and BJ series were skipped, the latter being used to produce another batch of alternate-slogan plates, so the BK series was introduced in late January or early February. Its numbers lasted through late March or early April, when the BL series made its debut.

All plates of these early flat series, that is to say those with numbers beginning with BH, BK, and BL, share characteristics of late BG-series plates: the number and blue graphics in traditional medium blue, the city name in an italic cursive font, and year and month stickers placed in the upper left and right corners, respectively.

It was during issuance of BL-series registrations that the next noteworthy change occurred. This change, however, is unrelated to the recent adoption of DLP technology. Instead, it was made as a result of external forces: the theft of plate validation stickers and the introduction of a new registration system at the DMV. Because the change is not present on license plates in their natural state (i.e. in the form of a physical characteristic defined during manufacture), it is more difficult to define and discuss.

Effective Sunday, April 21, 2002, (i.e. for transactions processed as of Monday morning and thereafter) the method of registration (and plate) validation was changed from the display on two small stickers applied to the license plates to a single sticker affixed to the vehicle's windshield. This was done largely to combat the chronic problem of plate stickers being stolen and affixed to plates of unregistered vehicles, and was made possible by the implementation of a new computerized registration system, DESTINY, which became operable during 2002, presumably just before the use of windshield stickers for validation purposes began.

At exactly what registration number this change took effect is unknown, but it was between BL-6120 and BL-8436 because the former plate has stickers whereas the latter has none. To make matters more interesting, in between appears to be a short run of plates issued with a month sticker but no year sticker. Additional BL-series plates must be observed before cutoff points applicable to plates distributed during this brief and interesting period can be narrowed.

Specifically, plate BL-0245 has standard APR and 2003 plate stickers indicating its initial issuance in April 2002 before the change to windshield stickers was made. Registration BL-3910 was observed on April 4 and identified as the highest- number in use at the time, about two weeks before the change, and although not noted it is reasonable to assume that the plates were validated with stickers. BL-6120 is the highest registration known to have been issued with plates validated with stickers, but its issuance date is unknown.

2000 baseplates numbered BL-0245 and BL-7391The last plates to be issued with plate stickers were distributed on Friday, April 19 or Sat., April 20. On Monday, April 22, windshield stickers were distributed, but based upon the existence of plate BL-7391 with a MAY sticker in the upper right corner but no evidence of a year sticker, it appears that plates may have been issued in this manner for a short period, probably two weeks or less. Plate BL-8436 has no stickers, just the empty boxes marked “YEAR” and “MONTH” in the upper corners, and this is how plates were issued for about two months.

On the subject of registration number assignment, it is worth noting at this time that new registrations are issued by more than one DMV office in Washington, so numbers are not assigned exactly sequentially (as they would be if there was only a single issuing office). However, observations consistently show that plates being issued by the various offices have numbers close to each other, and usually in the same letter series.

2000 baseplates numbered BF-2641 and BF-5427It should also be noted that although the standard registration term is one year, since 1992 motorists have the option of purchasing a two-year registration upon initial purchase or annual renewal. Therefore, although most plates issued during 2001 that were validated by plate stickers have a red-on-white “02” sticker because most motorists purchasing a new registration select the standard one-year term, some have a green-on-white “03” sticker indicating that the purchaser chose the two-year option. These two plates issued during August 2001 are examples of both registration terms available during that month.

To summarize:

July-Oct. 2002: Minor Changes Mark End of an Interesting Year

Through May and into June flat plates of the BL and BM series, most unmarked as to their validation, were issued. Specifically, the supply of BL-series plates lasted until the middle of May, and BM-prefix plates were distributed from then through mid-July. Within six weeks of the late April change to windshield sticker SEE WINDOW STICKER stickervalidation, DMV officials apparently realized that to be issuing license plates that included graphic indicators of where stickers should be placed but without any stickers could be problematic, especially when D.C. motorists were traveling outside of the region. A June 10 press release indicates a July 1 target date for the introduction of plate stickers marked SEE WINDOW STICKER to cover the empty sticker boxes. Exactly when these blue-on-white stickers were first distributed, and where in the general-issue sequence registration numbers were at the time, is unknown. However, if we make the reasonable assumption that they were indeed available on July 1, they were probably first issued with late BM-series plates.

SEE WINDOW STICKER stickers were issued in pairs both with new registrations, to cover the sticker indicator boxes on plates being issued, as well as with renewal transactions to cover expired stickers. They were distributed with new plates only until early October, when the final changes to D.C. plates were made.

2000 baseplates numbered BM-8291, BN-6713, and BP-1509Plates of the BN series were issued with SEE WINDOW STICKER stickers from mid-July through early September. The earliest BP-series plates were also distributed with these stickers, until simultaneously in late September or early October, at about plate no. BP-1400, the legend SEE WINDOW STICKER began to be printed in both upper corners of each plate where previously had been printed the YEAR and MONTH sticker placement indicators. Also at this time the font used for the city name was changed to a sans serif font similar to that used for the slogan since it was introduced almost two years before. Specifically, the highest plate with the italic script font and stickers is BP-1145 whereas the lowest without the stickers and the sans serif font is BP-1509.

There have been no notable changes to the appearance of Washington, D.C. general-issue auto plates since these Oct. 2002 changes, thus bringing to an end the adjustment period begun with the introduction of flat plates just over a year earlier.

To summarize:

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