Those cardboard plates

There’s a new look to Nevada license plates. They no longer have raised letters, and they look like they’re imprinted on cardboard.

“They’re not,” Tom Jacobson said. He’s one of two public information officers for the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles. “They’re aluminum.”

The DMV began issuing flat plates in 2004, at first with the specialty “United We Stand” license plates. The money raised from the extra fee for these plates goes to support emergency preparedness in the state. Now, even the plainer “Sunset plates"—the standard Nevada issue—are printed with flat letters, so if you register your car in Nevada, that’s the kind you’ll get.

It was a cost-saving measure, according to the DMV’s Web site.

“Right now, it costs $1.25 to $1.50 to make a digital plate where embossed plates cost about 95 cents apiece,” Jacobs said. “Because of the savings in utilities, mailing costs, chemicals and inventory, the costs of running the [license plate factory] remains about the same. The advantage is we now have a modern, more flexible, safer and more environmentally-friendly system.” (Motorists are charged 50 cents a plate, the same as when the mechanical process was used.) He compared it to the discontinuance of laminated driver license in favor of the current digital ones.

Not only that, Jacobson said, but the flat plates help save the environment, “eliminating the use of paint, dyes, lacquers and solvents in the manufacturing process.”

It’s safer, too, for the prisoners. Yes, prisoners really do make license plates—right in Carson City, in a facility called the “tag plant.”

“It’s true,” Jacobs said. “Our tag plant is in the Nevada State Prison, and workers in the tag plant are prisoners.”

There are fewer moving parts in the thermal process used for the flat plates than with the older machines. “The embossing machine was really a relatively large stamp mill that stamped the metal … that created the embossed letters,” Jacobs said.

Those old stamp mills had parts that were wearing out and difficult to replace. “It was almost like your computer just aging to the point where it can’t … be fixed,” Jacobs said.

The new thermal process is like laser printing. In the old days, the state needed to make license plates in big batches. Now plates can be manufactured in any combination.

So, just how many kinds of plates are out there nowadays? Jacobs said the state of Nevada has limited the specialty plates to 25, plus a handful of earlier kinds that have been grandfathered in. With the others and the standard Sunset plates, that makes about 30 different kinds.

As you drive around these days, you might notice other kinds of Nevada license plates. There are the oldies but goodies—called “Circa 1982 plates” by the DMV. Plain blue sits behind white numbers and letters, beginning with the first letter of a Nevada county. For Washoe, the plates begin with “W,” followed by four or five numbers. When the DMV tried to recall all of them, it resulted in protests to the Nevada Legislature, which overruled DMV.

Then there are the standards, what are called the Sunset plates—yellow sky above blue mountains that white out in the middle. The white is background for the numbers and letters that set your vehicle apart from all the others on the road. Finally, there’s the abundance of specialty plates—about 25 in all. They’re called charitable and collegiate plates by the Nevada DMV.

Issuance of several special plates—state aviation history, tourism, libraries, Ducks Unlimited, big horn sheep, and Nevada’s 125th anniversary—is discontinued, though some cars still use them. The newest plate commemorates atomic testing in the state and has been something of a bomb—there are only 567 active atomic plates. By comparison, there are 21,925 Lake Tahoe plates and 72,962 Las Vegas centennial plates. There are 190,010 non-standard plates in use in the state.

At one time, the state issued new plates every year and, for a time, alternated the state colors—blue on white one year, white on blue the next. The last year was white on blue, giving the now-legendary plates that caused the legislature problems their cachet. Two years were notorious for complaints to state officials—the year the state issued plates of a particularly yellowish green and the year when the word Nevada was abbreviated to Nev.