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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)

Others said there are so many messages out there that a vanity plate gives them a forum, albeit limited, to send theirs.

"We all want to be known for something," said René Cardwell of Stafford, who has CAKEL8D on her plate because she has a cake-making business. (Don't get it? It's Cake Lady.) "It gives you a sense of pride, and you get to display it to the world," she said.

Cardwell said she first got a personalized plate when she was trying to lose weight. Her trainer told her that she had to develop mental toughness, so to motivate herself she came up with MN2LE-TF. (Yes, she got lots of questions about what that one meant.) She lost 70 pounds and retired the plate to a wall in her home.

CAKEL8D is what she wants to be known for now, but Cardwell, 44, said it will be something different in a year, something that represents where she is at that point in her life. Cardwell hopes that in her old age, her license plates will tell her story.

"When I'm 90 years old and someone sees my collection, maybe someone will say, 'She was pretty cool,' " Cardwell said. "It's a little piece of a legacy."

With CAKEL8D and the 1.4 million others, Virginia has more vanity plates than any other state. The only other states that come close are Illinois, which has 1.1 million personalized plates, and California, with a little more than 1 million.

But in terms of percentages of drivers, Virginia is by itself. Those 1.1 million plates in Illinois amount to 10.4 percent of registered vehicles, compared with 18.5 percent in Virginia. California's 1 million make up just 3 percent of its fleet.

At the bottom end are states such as Louisiana, Texas and Indiana, where less than 1 percent of cars have personalized plates. A scant 1.7 percent of Maryland vehicles have them. A handful of places, including the District, either do not track the numbers or were unable to provide them.

Personalized plates are the combinations of letters and numbers designed by drivers. They may or may not be on specialized plates, which have backgrounds for such things as military service, colleges and other interests.

There are some patterns to vanity plates. A classic is to use one's initials and a spouse's initials. Dog-themed plates are popular. OBX, for Outer Banks, plus something else seems to be everywhere. And lots of people put their car model on their plate. One of the plates at Potomac Mills, for example, read ALT1MA on, you guessed it, a Nissan Altima.

There also seem to be certain types of messages on certain types of cars. A convertible sports car with plate JELLIS 1 passed through Aldie on a recent day. Not far behind it was another sports car, with LKIKARE.

Others get cute with their messages, such as a pickup with IHOSEU. Seems somehow vulgar, but it's not. The firefighter insignia next to it gives it away.

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