Traffic is seen on Interstate 66 near Vienna. ( Karen Bleier / AFP-Getty Images )

Kristan Barnes was sitting in traffic recently on Interstate 66, just before Exit 57B (Route 50/Lee Jackson Memorial Highway). The day was gray, and traffic, as usual, was at a standstill. And then the Fairfax receptionist spotted the Virginia license plate on a sporty red coupe and burst into laughter.

“I66 SUXX.”

For Barnes, the seven-character sentiment offered a bit of levity to the daily slog on one of Northern Virginia’s most notoriously traffic-choked arteries.

Long before Twitter allowed users to express themselves in 140 characters and Instagram in a single image, individuals were doing it in on the backs — and fronts — of their vehicles.

But it may be in Virginia, which boasts more vanity license plates per capita than any state in the nation, where this form of expression has become a true art. Nearly one in five plates registered in the commonwealth boasts a personal sentiment, including those, it appears, with strong feelings about I-66.

Expressions of I-66 on Va. vanity plates

The following list provided by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles includes a sampling of the license plates in Virginia that contain some combination of "I66" or "166." The DMV analysis turned up about 100 such plates.

  • I66SUXX
  • ILVI66
  • H8I66E
  • FUI66
  • UDI661
  • BIBI66
  • I66FML
  • FXI665
  • I66SUKS
  • IH8I66
  • HATEI66
  • EFFI66
  • H8I66
  • I66H8R
  • I66BLOZ

Source: Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles

An analysis of records by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles turned up nearly 100 plates that reference I66 or 166, including many offering barbed commentary on the highway.

There’s the aforementioned “I66 SUXX” and its close relative, “I66BLOZ.” We suspect that we know the meaning behind “UDI66.” And then there is the “H8” family, as in “IH8I66” and the more specific “IH8I66E.” And others, well, that are not fit for a family newspaper to print (or post online).

But tracking down these expressive souls proved to be much more difficult. Federal and state laws prohibit the release of license plate ownership information, except for official purposes.

So what is it about I-66 that inspires such passion and creativity?

Some drivers say they loathe the route in part because it can be more parking lot than highway.

“It’s a wonderful road — one day a week — when I’m not on it,” said Howard Jensen, who has been making a 74-mile commute between his home in Fauquier County and his job in Fairfax County for more than 15 years.

Despite millions spent to improve and widen I-66 in stretches where feasible, there’s almost never a time when there isn’t congestion — even at night and on weekends, drivers say.

“I-66 does a lot of heavy lifting for a lot of different kinds of trips,” said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “But the capacity hasn’t been added to reflect the demand.”

The 75-mile road was completed in 1982, to funnel east-west traffic between Strasburg, Va., and the District. It is a vital link between Northern Virginia’s suburbs and downtown Washington, and many points in between. Nearly 200,000 cars travel its busiest stretch — west of Nutley Street — each day, according to VDOT.

Over the years, efforts to widen portions of I-66 inside the Capital Beltway have met with fierce resistance, particularly from Arlington County officials and residents, who secured an agreement in 1977 that limited the portion of the road inside the Beltway to two lanes in each direction. Smart-growth advocates also opposed efforts to widen the highway, saying that such an expansion would lead to more congestion.

So, beyond special approval to widen a 1.9-mile portion between Fairfax Drive and Sycamore Street and a few other small sections, there isn’t much VDOT can do to add capacity.

Williams Edelglass, a professor of philosophy and environmental studies at Marlboro College in Vermont, has a theory about why Virginians are using their license plates to express frustration with the road. Vanity plates, he said, are a way for drivers to exert control over a situation that is usually out of their control.

“I can imagine it’s kind of liberating,” he said. “A vanity plate that comments on a commute, I imagine, is a way of gaining some distance, control and power over the commute.”

Drivers on I-66 “are thwarted by a common denominator they are powerless to change or challenge,” said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. They express and rail against this on vanity plates, a cry of humanity.”

Vanity plates date to 1957, when New Hampshire became the first state to offer its residents the chance to personalize plates without condition. But it was in 1970, when the California Department of Motor Vehicles began offering them in the Golden State, that the trend really took off, according to license plate historian and collector Jeff Minard.

Virginia DMV officials say they think Virginians are more likely to embrace vanity tags for one reason: They’re cheap — only $10, in addition to the regular vehicle registration fee. Compare that with the District, where you’ll pay $100 for a vanity plate, or in Maryland, which charges $50 a year for one.

Edelglass, the philosophy professor, said the I-66 plates may accomplish something else: creating a bond among commuters, a sense of camaraderie, a sort of “we’re-all-in-this-together” feeling.

Jensen, who has vanity plates that pay tribute to his dogs, says there may be something to that. When he spied “IH8I66” one day during his commute, it made him pause and chuckle.

For years, Alan Hutchins had a simple commuting philosophy when it came to I-66. Avoid it at all costs.

“I always swore that I would never get involved in that traffic,” he said. And then came the job offer too good to turn down, and Hutchins found himself making the 52.4-mile drive from his home near Route 28 in Centreville into the heart of the District. He bought a Prius, which makes the drive better because he can use the restricted lanes. Even so, his commute takes 75 minutes each way —and that’s on a good day.

Like the thousands of other drivers who regularly use the road, he knows that all it takes is a fender-bender, rain or sun glare to throw everything off.

On a recent night, Jensen’s Prius was rear-ended as he sat in heavy traffic. While he and the other driver were pulled over and exchanging information, other motorists, probably distracted by the crash, caused a three-car collision, further snarling traffic.

An I-66 curse? Perhaps.

“It’s hard to imagine another highway in this region that inspires drivers’ anger, such a long-standing focus of attention in Northern Virginia,” said Robert Thomson, The Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock, who knows a thing or two about sitting in traffic. Among the complaints Thomson gets during his weekly chats, “I-66 dominates.”

You’ll get no argument from the people at VDOT.

“It is just miserable,” spokeswoman Joan Morris said. “I-66 is broken. There’s no doubt about it.”

But VDOT is investing millions in initiatives designed to improve the road, including a year-long pilot slated to begin next month that would allow buses to travel on the shoulder of I-66 (inside the Beltway) when traffic is backed up. The hope is that the high-capacity buses can take more people to their destinations more quickly.

And there are a few users who had some kind words for the beleaguered road. Compared with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, for example, a drive on I-66 is as smooth as silk, Jason Hall said.

“The road itself isn’t to blame — it’s crafted as well as it can be,” said Hall, who lives in Bristow and commutes to Chantilly. “Of course it’s full of traffic, but that’s not the road’s fault.”