As North Carolina drivers write bigger checks to DMV for car taxes and registration renewals each year, they are cutting back on the optional expense of special license plates that boost their favorite teams, pastimes and charitable causes.
With 9 million registered cars and trucks across the state, 256,000 of them were sporting specialty plates in January, the Division of Motor Vehicles says. Ten years ago, when North Carolina had just 8 million vehicles on the road, 370,000 were adorned with the distinctive license plates.
DMV officials noticed a drop-off in specialty sales a couple of years ago, when they began taking on the task of collecting vehicle property taxes. Drivers don’t spend any more now than they would have under the old system, when they sent separate payments to DMV and the county tax collector. But they feel the pain of writing one bigger check to DMV.
Aesthetic issues and marketing missteps also have helped make these colorful plates less popular.
NASCAR boosters and former Gov. Mike Easley probably miscalculated in 2004 when they introduced a slew of racing-car plates, including 30 dedicated to individual NASCAR drivers. They tacked on a steep price of $30 for each plate – $10 for DMV and $20 for a foundation that promotes the motorsports industry.
NASCAR’s popularity has waned since then. Only 15 drivers’ plates are still on the road, and some of them sell in the single digits.
Denny Hamlin, who won Sunday’s Daytona 500 race in his No. 11 Toyota Camry, has nearly 500,000 followers on Twitter. But only 21 North Carolina drivers have license plates adorned with Hamlin’s signature and his No. 11.
The declining numbers mean dwindling dollars for charitable organizations that depend on a share of the fees DMV collects for some plates.
The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation gets $20 for each scenic amber “Share the Journey” license plate. The money is collected in the first year somebody bolts this pretty plate to their bumper – and again every year when they renew their registration.
The parkway plate’s popularity peaked in 2011 with 30,000 on the road. It’s still the state’s best-seller, but that number was below 24,000 as of January.
Even in decline, the “Share the Journey” plate accounted for one-third of the $1.5 million collected by the foundation last year to provide educational programs, expand parking lots and build trails and bathrooms along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“That wouldn’t have been possible without the revenue from these license plates,” said Carolyn Ward, the parkway foundation CEO. “It’s a wonderful way to drive across the country and show people your support for your state and its great natural resources.”
With so much money at stake, Ward pays close attention to her sales figures. The numbers started to go south after law enforcement officials persuaded the legislature to make a design change that improved legibility for a number of license plates with pretty, full-color backgrounds. Since 2012, the license number itself has been outlined in a white rectangle.
“It makes a difference,” Ward said. “I get phone calls and emails all the time from people fussing about the white box. The plate doesn’t look as pretty as it did before.”
DMV counts fewer than 2,000 customers for all those $30 NASCAR plates. But if you want to show your loyalty to the Carolina Panthers (5,157 plates on the road now) or the Carolina Hurricanes (2,573), the price is just $10.
Historic sales figures for individual specialty plates were not available Monday, but DMV officials confirmed that one plate has become a lot more popular since it was the focus of political controversy last summer.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans plate includes an image of the red-and-blue rebel banner. After the racially motivated murders of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., North Carolina political leaders talked about getting rid of the plate but stopped short of taking action on it.
When the issue raged, defenders of the Confederate flag flocked to order the $10 license plate. DMV sold out of its stocks and had to print more.
And sure enough, the number of active Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates rose from 2,064 in June to 3,300 in January.
DMV’s Top 10
Among the specialty license plates most popular with North Carolina drivers, only the Carolina Panthers plate is available at the Division of Motor Vehicles’ minimum price of $10 per year. When drivers pay $20 to $30 for the other top sellers, they are contributing additional money to help animals, preserve parks and support public universities.
Here are the numbers of plates that were in active use in January, with their annual prices. Not included in these rankings are plates available only to military veterans – including two popular ones: Disabled Veteran (22,641) and Vietnam Veteran (6,499).
Blue Ridge Parkway 23,532, $30
Great Smoky Mountains 20,195, $30
UNC-Chapel Hill 7,708, $25
Animal Lovers 7,415, $30
N.C. State University 5,712, $25
N.C. State Parks 5,681, $30
Appalachian Trail 5,494, $30
Save the Sea Turtle 5,377, $20
Ducks Unlimited 5,269, $20
Carolina Panthers 5,157, $10