As Shelly Wine headed for her car yesterday she kept peeking into the torn yellow envelope to reassure herself that the hard-won license renewal sticker was real.

Wine, 38, of Bethesda, had just emerged from the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration office in Gaithersburg, where she had stood in line for three hours to get the 1986 automobile registration sticker.

"I mailed away for the sticker, but I overpaid by $3 -- so I didn't get it. I had to come in person and write a check for the exact amount," she said, squinting in the brilliant sunlight. The check was returned to her a few weeks ago.

"I told the guy who waited on me, 'Next time I overpay, you can keep the change.' "

Wine joined about 5,000 overheated, tired, but otherwise stoic motorists in Gaithersburg for part of a statewide ritual, the March 31 dash to renew license tags. But it is an event that may have seen its last in Maryland, for later this year the state will begin a staggered registration program.

Starting in October, new reflective tags with the Maryland coat of arms will be issued each month based on the first letters of the car owners' last names. Renewals are already staggered in the District and Virginia.

About 100,000 procastinators showed up at Maryland's 11 stations yesterday to renew their tags, said Steve Horwitz, a spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. Maryland motorists face fines of up to $500 if they drive with expired tags.

To accommodate the crowds, the MVA issued renewals for those who were in line as late as 4:30 p.m., the normal closing hour. The offices planned to stay open until about 9 p.m.

Some motorists had arrived as early as 6 a.m., two hours before the offices opened for business, officials said. There were 10 persons in line when the doors opened at the Gaithersburg office, said title examiner Bruce Shenton.

They continued to pour in throughout the day. Those who arrived after noon faced a five-hour wait, Shenton said.

While they stood in the 85-degree sun in a line that stretched to the nearby street, some read books or tried to catch up on office work. Several women shielded themselves from the hot spring sun with umbrellas, while children in light summer garb played in a grassy area.

"I'm never going through this again," moaned Rosa Samudio, a secretary from Bethesda who said she "just forgot" to mail in her registration, in part because she had been out of the country on vacation.

Gaithersburg resident Joseph Chiancone, 25, said he never got a renewal slip in the mail. He said he realized the deadline for renewing his tag was rapidly approaching last week when he cleaned out the glove compartment of his car and looked at the registration.

Silver Spring resident Marisa Martorano, 30, who studies recreation at Montgomery College, became bored with standing in line and asked the person behind her to save her place. She roamed the parking lot, making small talk with Blair Enoch, a clerk at the motor vehicle office, who was on his lunch break.

"It's not my fault I'm here," she explained. "I sent away for my tags but I still haven't received them."

"Hey, do you have my tags in there?" she yelled at a mailman who drove by.

Adele Yost, 34, a bank loan officer from Silver Spring, said that why she waited until the last minute to get her tag renewed "is beyond me."

She arrived at about 1 p.m., found out she faced a five-hour wait, and decided to "bag it."

She said she would return today to get her sticker -- in her husband's car, which already has renewed tags.

"My husband mailed away for it," she said sheepishly.