U SD IT: Virginians Make a Statement With Vanity Plates

Charlie and Heidi Franz with children Erika, 16, and Jakob, 6. The Franzes' license plates are inspired by songs from the group Phish.
Charlie and Heidi Franz with children Erika, 16, and Jakob, 6. The Franzes' license plates are inspired by songs from the group Phish. (By Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)
By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006

The silence in the parking lot is broken only by the sounds of newly sprouted leaves doing a little dance in the spring breeze. There are no people to be found, and yet in this commuter lot at Potomac Mills mall, Virginians are telling stories and showing off.

Their tales are cryptic and short -- a combination of seven letters and numbers or fewer -- and are told on thin, 6-by-12-inch pieces of metal. Within those confines they manage to share their beliefs -- 2HIZWRD; their sorrows -- RIP DAVE; their daydreams -- FLEE2NC; and everything else, including their favorite song and football team as well as combinations that make sense to no one but them.

It is the language of the license plate, and no people in America speak it more fervently than those in Virginia, where 1.4 million cars -- nearly one in five -- sport a personalized plate. In almost every other state, vanity license plates are a diversion for a relative few. But in the Old Dominion, the practice has crossed from a fad to a way of life, a quirky part of what it means to be a Virginian.

"It's a part of Virginia culture, to show your colors of whatever stripe they happen to be," said Charlie Franz, a Woodbridge resident who sports a TWEEEZR plate, in honor of the band Phish and his favorite song, "Tweezer."

Yes, but why? What does it say about Virginians that they're so crazy for personalized plates?

Maybe they just know a good deal when they see one. It costs an extra $10 a year to get a vanity plate in Virginia, compared with the charges in some states, which can reach hundreds of dollars. Virginia also makes it easy to do online, where drivers can test combinations to see whether their favorite is available.

Those are reasons that make sense to Pam Goheen, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. "At $10 per year, personalized plates are really a bargain in Virginia," she said, noting the state made $9.2 million from vanity plate sales last year. "And customers can spend all the time they want at home, plugging different messages in different special plates."

But cheap and easy can be only part of the explanation, because it's cheap and easy to get a vanity plate in a lot of other states, too. They cost $12 a year extra in Florida, for instance, but only 1.1 percent of registered vehicles have one. The plates run $25 a year extra in Maryland and $75 a year extra in the District.

Some see their neighbors doing it so they figure they may as well, too. "It's a self-perpetuating thing," Franz said. "You see so many other people with it, you do the stuff that's important to you, too."

But many who have the plates, including Franz, also say there's something a little deeper about their obsession. They say that, in an often anonymous world, a license plate gives them a chance to express an intimate part of themselves. It can be a show of pride, a message for the masses or a way to signal to your peeps that you're one of them.

Franz's plate may seem odd to most who drive by him, but Phish fans get it. He has crossed paths a couple times with the guy who got TWEEZER, and they always honk and wave. It's a handshake and embrace, automobile style.

It's a way to keep the faith, added his wife, Heidi, whose plate -- 4 GUYUTE -- honors her favorite Phish song, "Guyute." "I'm really proud of my license plate," she said. "I like being able to express myself. It's unique and lets other people who are into Phish know that here's a fellow Phish fan."

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