It took legislators three tries to settle on regulatory language that was just right - not too socialistic, please, and not too free-market - to tame North Carolina's mischievous plague of fat license-plate frames.
Enacted in 2009, the law was modified twice this year. It bans frames that obscure the basic information on your auto license plate.
Starting Dec. 1, when the law takes effect, violators can be fined $100.
The Road Worrier brings this up in September because - you'll notice this when you drive to work this morning - about four zillion cars on the road today look like candidates for enforcement action.
Green Bay Packers! I'd rather be fishing! Crown Honda! UNC Tar Heels! Fans, alumni and customers frame their license plates with these exciting messages.
But sometimes they cover the year-and-month registration renewal stickers or hide the state name itself. This mundane information matters because the state name is part of the unique license number that identifies your car.
Officers' safety at risk
"An officer gets behind a car to make a stop - and we can't call in the tag for a license check prior to stopping the vehicle because we can't identify the state," said Sgt. Jeff Gordon, a state Highway Patrol spokesman. "The officer's safety was a big issue in this legislation."
The 2009 license plate frame law took effect last December - but with just a warning for violators during the first year, no fine.
Auto dealers supported the measure, but they were rattled when the Division of Motor Vehicles paraphrased the law perhaps too briskly in a news release. The DMV declared that the state name and registration stickers must be "fully visible" and "can no longer be partially covered."
The car dealers asked legislators to loosen the language a little, and a revised bill was ratified on July 9. But, oops, it added stricter words by mistake - with a careless phrase that might be construed to outlaw, say, a frame that nicked the "A" in NORTH CAROLINA.
An omnibus "technical corrections" bill, ratified the next day, gave us the language that actually will become law in December. It says:
A driver can't cover the plate "with any frame or transparent, clear or color-tinted cover that makes a number or letter included in the vehicle's registration, the State name on the plate, or a number or month on the registration renewal sticker illegible."
Illegible means that people can't read it. Even if a small slice of the state name is obscured, it might still be legible - and street-legal.
In the officer's eyes
Who decides this? The cop who writes your ticket.
If he or she can't read your license plate, you owe the state $100.
Some people who distribute these frames stopped using the illegal fat ones last year.
"The dealers adjusted quickly," said Bob Glaser, president of the N.C. Automobile Dealers Association.
At N.C. State University, the campus bookstore slashed prices on its fat frames to clear them off the shelves. Now it sells legal skinny ones that promote the school and the team in smaller letters.
The NCSU Alumni Association went cold turkey, halting its practice of sending plastic frames to new members and nicer metal ones to lifetime members.
"I think we were stuck with a couple of boxes," said Kathy Hart, the alumni spokeswoman. "We didn't want to contribute to a problem."
Even if car dealers and universities aren't foisting new fat frames on us, we're still driving around with those four zillion old ones.
How to avoid getting a $100 ticket? It's easy. Get a wrench or a pair of pliers (or in some cases you'll need a screwdriver) and get rid of that silly frame.
"The only sure bet is basically to have your license plate on there, and nothing else on it," Gordon said.