- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2001

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) Some people get the wrong idea when they read John Wilcox's license plate: 4GRLS&I.; They figure he's bragging about having four girlfriends.
On the contrary, the message is that Mr. Wilcox, a firefighter with the Chancellor Volunteer Fire Department, is a family man — a husband and the father of three girls. His Dodge Durango is one of more than 860,000 vehicles in Virginia sporting so-called vanity plates, which distill personal information, advice and humor down to no more than seven characters.
Thirteen percent of Virginia's vehicles have vanity plates, the highest percentage of any state in the country except Connecticut, according to a nationwide survey of motor vehicle licensing departments.
Sam G. Riley, a Virginia Tech professor whose 1991 book "GR8 PL8S" [Great Plates] takes a humorous look at the topic, said vanity plates are a form of mass communication for the average person. "You can have your say very cheaply," he said.
Mr. Riley's own vanity plate says BOTYGY (Bow Tie Guy). When he retires in about six years, he plans to change it to NOTYGY.
Although owners are limited to just a few letters and numbers, the combinations seem endless: A plate on a car parked outside a real estate office promises AHM4U. A tag on a car outside a hair salon says the owner is JUS CUTN.
Some messages are less obvious. The plate on Spotsylvania resident Dale Brown's minivan, for example, says IDIG5X5. Mr. Brown, 62, goes on archaeological digs in his free time. Historical archaeologists generally work in 5-by-5-foot units.
"I've had people come along, point and wave," Brown said. "What they think it means, I have no idea."
Trying to decode the messages helps Lisa Mitchell, 31, of Spotsylvania entertain herself while stuck in traffic. Her favorite so far: 10SNE1 (tennis, anyone?).
"If you're in a traffic jam on I-95, you see some of these intricate ones. Those are my favorites, when they don't come to you right away," she said. Her own vehicle bears the plate SHOOGS an abbreviation for Sugar, her husband's nickname for her but she plans to swap it for something more challenging for readers.
Before vanity tags ever hit the road, two computer programs and a team of Department of Motor Vehicles officials scrutinize each request to weed out vulgar or offensive messages. The list of prohibited tags is roughly the size of the Richmond phone book, said DMV spokesman Johnny Perez.
Nearly 7.5 million license plates across the country, about 3 percent of all the registered vehicles, feature personalized messages, according to DMV statistics.
The first vanity plates hit the road in Connecticut in 1937, according to Mr. Riley's book. That early start may have contributed to the enormous success of the tags there. More than 25 percent of Connecticut's registered vehicles sport vanity tags. "We're a very vain state," said Connecticut DMV spokeswoman Debbie Genca.
In 1981, Virginia became one of the last states to offer personalized plates.
Erik Craft, an associate professor of economics at the University of Richmond who has been studying the vanity plate craze since 1999, said price has contributed to the popularity of the plates in Virginia. The state's $10 fee is one of the nation's lowest.
Also, states like Virginia that require front and back tags seem to sell more vanity plates, which also are popular among buyers of specialty plates those featuring military insignia, college emblems or other symbols, Mr. Craft said. Virginia offers 180 different specialty plates.

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