Making license plates memorable

Someone suspicious has just pulled someone into a car and driven off and you saw the license plate. Quick! Close your eyes and tell me the number you saw as it screamed by you.

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How about now?

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Maybe you won’t remember the number, but you’d probably remember Daffy Duck.

That’s — sort of — the idea behind a Massachusetts man’s idea to use fewer numbers and more symbols on license plates.

Wired.com reports that Massachusetts is considering the EZ-ID license plate, which uses “universally recognizable symbols, such as a star, heart, diamond, square, circle, tri-angle, etc., along with alpha numeric characters, to give a graphic that even young children can recognize, remember, and report.” (There’s actually no Daffy Duck symbol, but why couldn’t there be?)

Under the format, each plate has a randomly assigned symbol instead of a number.


Registries would need no more than four characters to allow for 107 million possible combinations, or three times what current plates allow. Fewer characters also allows using a larger font, making plates easier to read.

“If such license plates are indeed easier to memorize or recognize, this could help, for example, a victim relay a license plate to law enforcement after an incident,” said Cynthia Lum, a professor of criminology and director of George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy. “Memorizing a plate is difficult in a stressful situation.”

No one’s empirically tested the effectiveness of the new plates, but the math shows that fewer numbers on a license plate makes even a partially remembered registration more valuable. According to Richard, just the style and color of the car with a symbol alone would narrow it down to one of 360 cars, and more information would further focus the search.

“If you said it was a blue SUV and ‘Diamond 5,’ it’s one of about 12 cars,” he said.

  • BenCh

    That would allow endless vanity plates of “I

  • Kassie

    I call 911 pretty frequently and call in license plate numbers about half the time I call, I think this would be great. I often can only see partial plates due to where the car is or snow covering the plate. And I’m terrible at make and models.

    The only drawback I see, which is totally a me thing and not for most people, I keep a list of suspicious vehicles in my phone and having to type out “heart” or “triangle” would be a pain in the ass.

  • Chris

    Kassie where do you live? Remind me not to move there.

  • Cara

    I personally request the screaming Daffy Duck on my license plate.

  • Disco

    If Massachusetts approves this and it works, I predict it will reach Minnesota some time in the next century. It’s too good of an idea.

  • Chris

    Even after reading the articles, the math here doesn’t make intuitive sense to me. They seem to be replacing two alpha-numeric symbol with one “shape” symbol.

    There are at least 30 alpha-numeric possibilities, even if you eliminate similar characters like I/1 or O/0.

    How will 4 shape symbols (in one slot) create more total plate combinations than 30 alpha-numeric symbols (in two slots)?