Disambiguating licence plates


I was standing by a set of traffic lights near our office this evening when I witnessed an ungainly SUV drive past. I appreciate ungainly is a superfluous descriptor for SUVs, but this one looked even more like a beached whale than normal. Except, whales are sleek. Anyway my eyes darted down and saw their ABBA vanity plates which made me grin. I could already imagine the occupants exiting the vehicle in white jumpsuits, perhaps like this:

Screenshot showing me summoning Bride Nero!

Ah Fate/Grand Order, still the only mobile game I’ve taken seriously, though it would need many more hours for it to surpass SimCity 3000, Commander Keen, and Train/Flight Simulator. But I digress.

As I stole a second glance when crossing the street, I realised the plates didn’t say ABBA at all, they were spelled A88A. Even in Vim they appear the same in my periphery. This was of course the intended effect; licence plates were doing this for years before URL hacks brought us del.icio.us and bit.ly.

As I think about it, that’s not a good thing. The primary purpose of licence plates is to uniquely identify vehicles and therefore their owners, presumably to report their illegal or dangerous activities. Our memory centres and attention are already compromised for reading regular plates, let alone under duress.

Singapore did away with this. Cars over there don’t even have vowels for their middle letter to avoid inadvertent words being spelled, let alone a chosen one. The only time I saw vanity plates over there that weren’t just strings of numbers were cars driven over from Malaysia, such as the crown for the Johor royals. Singapore plates even have a friggen checksum, which is awesome.

I guess if there were any silver lining, it’s that for every confusing vanity plate, there must be a simple one that instantly recognisable. You wouldn’t rob a bank with a getaway car showing Q for plates. And while it seems to be changing in Australia, there are likely other easily-identifiable characteristics about a car who’s owner can afford to have such a plate.

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Ruben Schade is a technical writer and infrastructure architect in Sydney, Australia who refers to himself in the third person. Hi!

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