Vehicular Vanity Run Amuck

What do our license plates say about us?

Illustration by Gary Hovland

Research suggests Virginians are the vainest people in America. Being so allegedly vain, you may be offended by the previous clickbaity claim. Or, you may be offended because you know Virginians are the best in the world at humility. Or, because Virginians are the smartest people in the world, you don’t like broad stereotypes that aren’t backed up by facts and good science.

So here’s what we know: According to statistics from the American Association of Vehicle Administrators, Virginians own more vanity plates per capita than the residents of any other state in the nation. According to Virginia DMV spokesperson Brandy Brubaker, 19.1 percent of Virginians own either “specialty plates” or “personalized plates,” which “is definitely a huge percentage compared to other states,” she says. 

Most recent numbers have New Hampshire in second place and Illinois in third in vehicular self-absorption. Virginia even has more vanity plates per capita than Texas, the birthplace of narcissism. 

As of July of this year, she says, more than one million Virginians chose to pay extra to personalize their plates; $1.6 million bought one of 275 different specialty plates that allow drivers to show support for good causes such as breast cancer research, the Family and Children’s Trust Fund, and non-profits protecting many of Virginia’s natural treasures, or those less, well, desirable, like anything having to do with Texas A&M (full disclosure: the writer is a Cornhusker).

Another 6.8 million of us chose to BE DULL, vanity-plate-wise, saving the $10 personalization fee and the $25 specialized-plate fee by going with the standard “Virginia Is For Lovers” plate—which in itself is, most design experts agree, a considerable and welcome improvement over the pre-2014 Virginia plate, which the same designers consistently  ranked as one of the nation’s ugliest along with those of Maryland, Massachusetts, and (.… wait for it .…) Texas. 

After rattling off her stats, though, Brubaker suggests that the basic thesis here—that the high number of specialty and personalized plate purchases in Virginia equates to a high volume of vanity—is a dead-end road. She takes me to task for even using the term “vanity plate” in the first place. 

 “I personally don’t think the fact that Virginians have so many personalized plates says anything about self-absorption,” says Brubaker. “I think that old term, ‘vanity plate,’ is unfair. They’re fun for people, people get to show support for things they care about and in many cases the money is going to causes people care about.”

Vain people tend to be in denial, I countered, but maybe she has a point. Let’s take a different route here. Let’s visit the DMV website. 

What you’ll quickly discover is something folks at the American Association of Vehicle Administrators confirm: Virginia DMV offers an incredible array of inexpensive specialty plates that can be personalized for 10 bucks within seconds and paid for with a couple clicks of the mouse. Within 90 seconds, I almost paid $35 for an Appalachian Trail specialty plate emblazoned “NELL” (NELSON is already taken). 

I could just imagine it there on our little Honda. I mean, some of the money goes to trail upkeep, after all. And my neighbors would see that I’m all environmental and that I have a nickname and people who like nature who have nicknames are obviously super cool. 

Ultimately, my wife’s voice, which is always in my head, yelled that my online shopping habit is not cool, so I slammed on the brakes. 

But I get it now. Virginians probably aren’t unusually vain. The Virginia DMV is just unusually fast and furious with its Amazon-caliber shopping portal and seductive something-for-everyone-including-bowlers-and-Tibetan-freedom-fighters suite of plate choices. For a reasonable price, even using your smartphone, the DMV lets us please our better angels by helping find a cure for childhood cancer with a specialty plate while also playfully indulging our fallen angels with some monogrammed car bling.  

And even if we are the vainest of the vain, all our sinful thinking keeps our Department of Motor Vehicles self-sufficient and channels $3.748 million to colleges and charitable organizations throughout the state. And that is, I think you’ll agree, a good thing.

 “The website is fantastic, as you know,” Brubaker says after I described how I was tempted. “It’s as good as there is in the country. You have so many options to support the things you care about and be creative and have fun. We’re very proud of our programs here.

“So go ahead,” she continues. “You should get that plate you want.”

Okay, okay. Even though I know vanity is one of Dante’s “Seven Deadly Sins,” even though online shopping can get me sent straight to the hellaciously lumpy pull-out couch in the basement, I can’t resist any longer. Here at the crossroads of DMV.Virginia.gov, I think I’ve finally been tempted to NELL my Honda Sol. 

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