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Posted by Sean Cooper

It’s probably fair to assume that most people are aware of the very basics when it comes to being compliant with the law regarding number plates.

However, by that I mean most people know you need one on the front and one on the back of your vehicle. If I’m going to be kind, a majority of people will also probably know that the rear plate has a yellow background while the front plate has a white background. Beyond that though, our knowledge of what is and isn’t legal regarding number plates is probably pretty scratchy, to say the least.

An easy mistake to make?

Take this driver for example, who was pulled over by the police in February on the M6 in his BMW 520d. The car was reported because the rear number plate was hard to read due to the amount of dirt covering the rear of the vehicle. It wasn’t just stopped for the plate being obscured, and that’s because there was so much dirt on it that even the rear lights were getting obscured. However, just the number plate being unreadable is an offence that carries a maximum fine of £1,000.

Of course, there’s no law against having a dirty car or van. If there were, the police probably wouldn’t know what to do with all the money they gathered in fines during a UK winter. Even so, they don’t look kindly on a number plate being unreadable for any reason.

There’s obviously no need to clean your entire car every time it gets a layer of dirt on it from wet or slushy roads, but it only takes a moment to check that your number plate and lights are at least properly visible. You could set off on a journey with everything in order and the dirt thrown up from the road could quite quickly make your plate unreadable.

You’re going to know when the conditions are like this because you’ll be using your windscreen washers constantly. When you’re thinking about refilling your washer reservoir, which you should be doing regularly in these conditions, take half a minute to check your plate and give it a clean if it’s getting dirty.

Speaking about this particular incident, GEM road safety officer, Neil Worth, explained, “A number plate must be readable and not covered by dirt. This is to ensure a vehicle can be identified as and when required.

At this time of year, it’s easy for a number plate to get so dirty that it cannot be read. This is usually caused by muck on damp road surfaces that ends up on the rear of a car.

Although there is no law against having a dirty car, the law is very clear when it comes to keeping your number plates clear; you risk a £1000 fine if you allow it to become obscured.”

I could, of course, make a cheap joke here about the car in this particular case being a BMW, but most of you were probably thinking about that the stereotype anyway, so I’ll park that one for the time being.

More number plate naughtiness

At first thought, the idea of bombing down the motorway with your number plate obscured by dirt that stops speed cameras reading your registration number might not sound like an altogether bad thing, until you get stopped at least. Even then, you can always try and say it was clean when you set off, apologise profusely, wipe it clean, and you’ll probably be allowed to go on your way without serious sanction by a reasonable police officer.

Although it’s not something we hear as much about these days as we used to, there are almost-invisible substances available out there in the wild west of the internet that claim to obscure your registration number from speed cameras to prevent you being fined for speeding.

I’ve done a little research in this area, and one product I’ve come across appears to be sailing extremely close to the wind when it comes to staying on the right side of the law.

I won’t divulge the name, but it claims to be a clear solution designed to be applied to the kind of smooth acrylic number plates we use here in the UK. I cannot be seen unless you get really close up to it, and it’s supposed to obscure the numbers on a registration plate from most of the common automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems used in this country.

Now, by the time you’ve read this article to this point, you’ll probably be assuming that it would be illegal to use such a product on your registration plate? The best advice I can give is to point out that it’s illegal in the UK to cover a number plate with anything.

However, the site selling this product appears to be trying to claim there’s something of a loophole here to be exploited. It claims to have several serving police officers among its customers and they say they can’t think of what actual offence you’d be charged with if you were caught using their product.

They claim it would be considered a ‘construction of use’ offence, but it wouldn’t be endorsable and all you’d have to do is replace the plate with an untreated one and have it officially checked at an MOT testing station. There may, but only may they say, also be a fixed penalty to pay.

The company selling the product then attempts to cover themselves from any potential criminality by then saying “We take the view that you should not use (product X) on the road because you may contravene local legislation. Use it instead as a technical ‘toy’ and if you apply it to a number/licence plate, do not put it onto a vehicle and use it on public roads.” This is then immediately followed by a smiley face emoji.

Clearer rules

The best place to find out what is and what isn’t allowable as far as number plates are concerned is the gov.uk website. If you look the subject up, at first you might be surprised at how few rules there appear to be.

The site says plates must be made from a reflective material, the front plate must be black characters on a white background, the rear plate must be black characters on a yellow background, and there mustn’t be any sort of background pattern.

What might raise a few eyebrows is the fact the gov.uk website actually states that the characters on a number plate CAN be 3D!

It then goes on to point out that motorcycles or tricycles registered on or since September 1st, 2001 should only display a number plate at the rear. Any registered before that date are allowed to display a number plate at the front as well, but it’s not in any way compulsory. Also, the rear plate for a bike or trike should be on 2 lines and not on a single line as they are on other vehicles.

Then we get to the old chestnut of towing a trailer, and I’m sure many of you can recall some horror stories of makeshift licence plates you’ve seen attached to trailers or caravans from time to time in the past?

The official line is that the number plate on the trailer or caravan must be the same as the one on the vehicle towing it, and if you’re towing more than one trailer, the number plate must be securely fixed to the one at the very rear.

I live on the coast and we get a lot of speed boats, jet skis, RIBs and caravans coming here in the summer. You’d only have to sit near the boat launch area for a few minutes on a nice sunny Sunday in the summer to see any number of chancers flouting the rules.

Common number plate legality infringements include a number written on a piece of cardboard shoved in the rear window of a caravan or even the car that’s towing a boat or other trailer. Another favourite is for the trailer or caravan and the towing vehicle to have completely different number plates on them, and then you’ll always see at least one with no evidence of a number plate whatsoever. “It must have fallen off on the way here, guv.”

Specifications

It appears the days of flashy fonts and the creative spacing of letters on number plates to make them read something they don’t actually say are largely a thing of the past. There are now pretty strict rules about the size, font and the spacing of characters on a number plate, and anyone daft enough to flout these rules is probably more likely to feel the wrath of the law than the guy with the BMW with its plate covered in dirt.

If you’re tempted to chance your arm and see how far you might or might not be able to get creative with your number plate design, take a moment to look up the government’s INF104 leaflet. It’s not the most enthralling document you’ll ever read, but it will probably get any ideas you might have about special characters or funny spacing to bed once and for all.