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How Vanity License Plates Are Approved And Denied In California


For every driver who's perfectly happy with an assigned license plate for their car, there are others who want their plates to show a little more personality. But state DMVs won't just let any message on the road. In California, it's actually somebody's job to review the thousands of applications for vanity plates - and with good reason, as we're about to hear. Los Angeles Magazine writer Sam Braslow dug into the California Department of Motor Vehicles process for vetting vanity plates. He's here to talk more. Welcome to the program.

SAM BRASLOW: Thank you.

CORNISH: So how did you get on to this story? I mean, were you just curious about vanity plates? Like, what was your thinking about how it happens?

BRASLOW: Well, I think vanity plates are kind of everyone's hobby in Los Angeles. It's a very car-centric culture. People regularly talk about the most out-there plates that they see. I was curious about the ones that didn't make it.

CORNISH: Now, is there an official database of dirty words and euphemisms? Or like...


CORNISH: What's the yardstick that the DMV uses to say whether something's inappropriate or not?

BRASLOW: They do have kind of a reference list that has a lot of euphemisms and offensive terms. But generally speaking, the policy that they follow is they say, quote, "The department shall refuse any configuration that may carry connotations offensive to good taste and decency or which would be misleading based on criteria."

CORNISH: All right. We're going to give you some plates. And you can tell us what happened next. Here's the first one.

BRASLOW: G-A-S-P-A-S-R. Gaspasr.

CORNISH: So Gaspasr got a no. Can you talk about why? What was the reasoning?

BRASLOW: Sure. So the applicant's explanation for Gaspasr - they explained that, I am a nurse anesthetist, which would make sense. They use gas. But the DMV commented gas passer. She passes gas - in parentheses - farts.

CORNISH: Ah, OK. So someone decided they weren't buying it. Are there things that they police for, like, hate speech or racism? I mean, how does that work?

BRASLOW: Totally, yeah. Unfortunately, they do get a lot of submissions that at least could be interpreted as hate speech, as offensive to certain groups. They try to filter out things that could be seen as maybe references to white supremacy. For instance, the number 88 - in any context, even if it's benign, even if it's completely harmless, they always consistently block out the number 88 because it has a certain symbolism for white supremacy.

CORNISH: I'm going to just ask you about one or two more plates. Here is the next one.

BRASLOW: 4-2-0-E-D-D-I - 420 Eddi.

CORNISH: This got a no.

BRASLOW: So the applicant explained when they applied for this. They said, quote, "It has no meaning. I just want to get it because I like it. That's it." The DMV recognized very quickly - they said 420 - national smoke day - 420 - marijuana. So it's a reference to marijuana and cannabis.

CORNISH: Sorry, Eddi. All right. Here's the next one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: H-O-T-N-S-X-E. Hot and sexy.

CORNISH: This one's very subtle. This got a yes.

BRASLOW: This has been a surprising one for us. (Laughter) But the applicant's explanation. They said, quote, "myself being a middle-aged woman."

CORNISH: OK. Not mad at it. In the end, now that you've seen so many of these plates and also the explanations, what does it tell you about the kind of folks who get vanity plates?

BRASLOW: A spokesperson for the DMV told me that these plates and even the rejected ones are kind of a reflection of the diversity of California and the clever people applying for these plates. (Laughter) I think it's in good fun, at least.

CORNISH: Sam Braslow is a writer for LA Magazine. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BRASLOW: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.