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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : THY NAME IS VANITY

<i> Sokolowski is a Times copy editor. </i>

An L.A. County deputy sheriff had stopped my car to remind me that my registration had expired, but I suspected that it was the configuration of letters on the car’s personalized license plates that most interested him.

“I hope you’re planning to register this car before you OH DEE ,” he said, motioning to my front vanity plate, which reads B4OHDEE.

It was the second time in a month that I had been stopped by the police, ostensibly to discuss some minor but essential point of vehicular law, but primarily, I felt, to allow the officer a look at the guy behind the overdosed plates.

I explained that I had recently bought the car and hadn’t had time to register it in my name. The plates were inherited from the previous owners--the O’Donnells.

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“You know, I think it means BMW for O’Donnell ,” I said.

“Could be,” the officer replied, “but I’d think about getting them changed, just to avoid trouble. It’s not smart to advertise your vices.”

Most of California’s approximately 1 million personalized license plates, the funds from which benefit state environmental programs, are less troublesome.

“One of the most frequently requested plates is PEACE,” says Walt Steuben, who manages the Special Plate Unit for the California Dept. of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento. “It was one of the first plates requested when we introduced vanity plates on Aug. 1, 1970, and it continues to be popular, which I suppose says something good about our ‘crazy’ California drivers.”

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Today the DMV receives 500 or so requests daily for personalized plates, but according to Steuben, the California Environmental License Plate Fund began with a whimper.

“When the program started, we were even promoting vanity plates to a point. Sometimes we would actually help people write their plates when they came into the office. Customers liked the idea of a personalized plate, but they didn’t know exactly what to say, or how to get a coherent message across in only six letters or numbers. There’s a sort of art to writing a good vanity plate.”

IN AN ARTICLE in the English Journal, University of Arizona professors Margaret Fleming and Duane Roen concluded that “there is an irresistible challenge in trying to condense an entire statement into six or seven characters (on a license plate), perhaps akin to that felt by writers in such rigid poetic forms as haiku or sonnets.”

In California, this irresistible challenge is often met by pavement poets who test the speed limits of good taste.

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“Car owners will try to get almost every kind of suggestive saying past us,” Steuben says, “and that’s where the Special Plate Unit comes in.” Steuben and the nine other members of the unit scrutinize applications in an attempt to keep potentially offensive plates off the road.

“In the beginning, it was easy to spot the objectionable configurations. You’d get a four-letter word spelled with a PH instead of an F,” Steuben says. “But today, we get applications in over 20 foreign languages. And a few years ago, we noticed that applicants started spelling words and phrases backward.”

The Special Plate Unit maintains a library of foreign-language dictionaries, along with slang dictionaries, unabridged English dictionaries, a medical dictionary and a copy of the California State Penal Code, “just in case someone tries to stick the the code number for a particularly heinous offense on their Chevy,” Steuben says. And a mirror comes in handy, too, especially in foiling those reversed inspirations, many of which are summarily detcejer .

In fact, it is often the most innocuous-appearing requests that pique the interest of special unit members.

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“You ask yourself why anyone would take the time to apply for a personalized plate that doesn’t seem to mean anything. Maybe it’s someone’s initials, you tell yourself,” Steuben says. “Then you look at the configuration a bit closer, with a mirror, with a French dictionary in hand, and you find a good reason to toss it out.”

If a request for a plate is deemed offensive and rejected by the unit, applicants often give the configuration another try, providing a seemingly innocent explanation for the six digits.

“We’ve heard them all,” Steuben says.

Frequently, a plate that has been rejected one year will be approved the next.

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“We originally gave thumbs down to BITCHN,” Steuben says, “but the latest slang dictionaries carry the term, so we let it go. LFSABCH is another example of a phrase that has become so popular and so frequently heard and seen that we let them stamp it out at Folsom.” (Vanity plates, like all California plates, are made by inmates at Folsom Prison.)

DESPITE THESPECIALUNIT’S best efforts, potentially insulting vanity plates find their way to the bumpers of the state’s BMWs and Buicks.

“We really hear about it when we let one slip by,” Steuben says. “The unit receives about a dozen complaints a month, mostly by mail. I’d say about half of those plates are truly offensive.” Many of the complaints, it seems, come from people who make a hobby of spotting naughty plates.

One recent complaint involved the plate reading COKE DLR. The DMV sent a letter to the plate’s owner, asking the owner to surrender the drug-tainted tin. The owner responded with a photograph of the plates on his Coca-Cola delivery truck.

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And after a bit of research, the DMV discovered that the MEAT WGN indeed belonged to a butcher, and that the BUSH DR whose plate troubled a few fellow motorists turned out to be a tree surgeon.

Doctors, in fact, account for a large percentage of the state’s vanity plates. How many? The special unit doesn’t maintain any categorical statistics, but there is a HAND MD, an anesthesiologist (ZZZZ 4U), a dermatologist (ZITS), a SPYN DOC, a HAIR DOC and a urologist (CME2P).

“It makes it easier to remember what doctor goes with what car when I can remember a name plate,” says J. Rodriguez, a parking lot attendant who works near Cedars Sinai Medical Center. “Otherwise, they are only so many Mercedeses.”

And the unit sometimes receives complaints about unintentionally vain non -personalized plates. “Every once and while the arbitrary configuration of 7 digits comes up with something that’s less than wholesome,” Steuben explains. “Most often, the car’s owner will return the plate for something a bit milder, but sometimes we have to reclaim the plates.”

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THE INTRODUCTION OF personalized license plates in 1970 coincided with the state’s adoption of the now-familiar non-reflectorized blue-and-gold plate. However, a state Assembly bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Sunny Mojonnier (R-Encinitas) and signed by Gov. George Deukmejian on Sept. 8, 1985, requires that all plates issued after Jan. 1, 1987 be reflectorized. Blue plates currently on vehicles remain valid, unless lost, destroyed or surrendered to the DMV.

“The blue plate was pulled out of inventory as of the first of last year,” says Bill Gengler, a DMV spokesman. “As far as we were concerned it was gone.”

Enter Assemblyman Eric Seastrand (R-Salinas) and his Assembly Bill 943. When Gov. Deukmejian signed Seastrand’s bill into law on Sept. 30, 1987, it resurrected the blue plate, allowing its use for personalized purposes only.

“The assemblyman just prefers the blue-and-gold license plates,” says Mary Ann Coppinger, Seastrand’s legislative assistant. “He thinks those colors represent California better than the plain white plate, and he personally wanted to retain blue plates on his car. He assumed that there might have been others in the state who felt the same way. It was a personal thing that eventually became law.”

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Gengler says the DMV “hasn’t received that many requests for blue plates because there isn’t that much public knowledge that they are available again.”

ONE WOULD EXPECT that Walt Steuben, after a decade of policing the state’s plates, would be a bit jaded by all this mobile wordplay.

“There are times that I can’t believe how naive I really am,” Steuben says. “I’ll be driving to work and spot a strange-looking vanity plate on the car in front of me, and I’ll spend some spare time trying to decipher it. When I finally figure it out, I’ll say, “Well, they got us on that one, didn’t they?’ ”


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